Saturday 23 March 2019

Neil Francis: Fired-up Pumas sound rousing note of caution for Irish

Schmidt’s men on collision course with Argentina’s unchained pride

Argentina observe the national anthem during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between New Zealand and Argentina at Wembley Stadium (Photo by Chris Lee - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)
Argentina observe the national anthem during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between New Zealand and Argentina at Wembley Stadium (Photo by Chris Lee - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There are many things that distinguish rugby union from association football; some are so nuanced they are practically impossible to detect.

If ever you had a crisis of certainty and you were looking to differentiate, maybe look at something that happens before the whistle even blows.

In stroke-ball, the sullen, apathetic, gum-chewing detachment of it all - why even bother standing in a line for their national anthem? Almost to a country the soulless muttering, the thousand-yard stare - the 'do we really have to do this?' lameness.

A bit of animation, a burst of emotion even for 90 seconds, a sudden awareness of responsibility or tribal recognition. . . nada, nothing, I don't understand it.

In rugby union, the anthems set us apart from all other international team sports. We sing our anthems: it reinforces who we are and for the players gives rise to what will happen in the next few minutes. It is as natural as it is integral to belt out our national anthems.

Bad news so that the bloody Argies were at it again at this World Cup. They mean business in this competition.

Compelling

In France in 2007, one of the highlights was watching Argentina sing their national anthem on their way to the semi-finals and eventual third place. In every match they played, there was a sense of occasion whenever 'Himno Nacional Argentino' was being sung.

Watch it on YouTube to remind yourself of how compelling it was to see grown men quite unable to contain themselves emotionally as they observe who they are in front of who they belong to.

In 2007, almost half the team were in tears before the song started; because their arms were bound with their team-mates in a line, they couldn't conceal the moisture in their eyes. As the song began those who were able to sing belted it out.

It was as rousing as it was emotionally uplifting. Unchained pride in their nation.

Last Sunday, the fervour and emotional rawness displayed on the line during the national anthem for Argentina and backed up by a display of serious intent told you one thing: if Ireland are to challenge in this Cup they will have to play out of their skins to do it.

There will be no easy games after the third match and Ireland will have to dog it out with gritty, competitive sides when the live ammunition starts flying around.

I have a feeling we will be meeting the Argies - a team we don't like playing against and a team that are licking their lips at the prospect of meeting us.

Argentina have struggled in the Rugby Championship since being admitted to the old Tri-Nations in 2012. But let's remind ourselves that the term 'struggle' is a relative term.

Yes, it is true that they have struggled to win games. Sometimes, though, the 'struggle' is just to get better and unquestionably they have done that. If you were an ambitious coach, where would you rather be? Picking off easy wins against Italy and Scotland, or trying out against the big boys?

Argentina's skill levels were really good - if you operate in a shark pool you have to adapt. Everything about their game-plan and competitive demeanour tells you that they will be horribly competitive and difficult opponents for ourselves or France.

In 2006, Juan Martin Hernandez was the best player in the world. In 2007, he illuminated the World Cup with a dazzling array of subtlety in every game. In 2011, he did not really feature mainly because of injury, but last Sunday the old maestro was back, and he oozed class.

He is probably the best passer in the competition; some of his passing behind his body on Sunday was just a masterclass of knowing from the 33-year-old.

His kicking was sumptuous and his tackling pointed and aggressive - I don't think he is happy just to wander off into the twilight just yet.

I am certain that if Joe Schmidt had a centre of his quality available to him he would have fewer sleepless nights about his midfield combination.

The All Black performance was an exercise in functionality. They got the job done but were pushed a lot harder than they would have bargained for. They are still the team to beat primarily because they are still ruthless.

One little vignette about this quality came to light just before half-time. Sonny Bill Williams had been introduced for a strangely ineffective Ma'a Nonu and approaching half-time got one of those 'how did he just do that' offloads away to Nehe Milner-Skudder.

At that stage the winger had been playing well and as the ball came out of the feed it stayed in motion for a millisecond - a metre from the line - what is there to think about? Catch and score!

Milner-Skudder inexplicably took his eye off the ball as he went over the line and dropped it. A certain score missed.

In New Zealand, they hang wingers from the highest gallows for those sort of unpardonable crimes. Minutes later after another error Milner-Skudder was bench jockey number two.

Anything New Zealand can do, Joe can do. Tommy Bowe will most likely get a chance on Sunday but he is going to have to score the same number of tries as tackles he missed in Twickenham - no charity, no pity at this level.

The French game was pretty dull and uninstructive. Italy always struggle without Sergio Parisse, who is the embodiment of all things positive in Italian rugby.

Hard to know how good the French team really played without Parisse being on the field.

Louis Picamoles would not have had the field day he had if Parisse had been there.

The coming French game will descend into a game of tactical kicking and so we have an obvious advantage with Johnny Sexton over Freddy Michalak but the targets of those kicks will likely change.

Scott Spedding looked very good in broken field and will start against Ireland but with Yohan Huget gone for the whole competition, it is hard to know what the French will do.

After trying out about 10,000 players in his four-year reign and picking an extended RWC 70-man squad, coach Philippe Saint-André goes and picks the uncapped and untried Remy Grosso to replace Huget. What did we expect?

Damage

The guy wasn't anywhere close to the 70-man squad but at6ft 3ins and 17.5 stone there is a little bit of the George North about him - the Castres man is a really powerful and intelligent runner and will cause damage if he is picked.

The other wing who could come into consideration is Sofiane Guitoune - the Algerian-born flyer from Bordeaux-Begles. This guy is quicker than Bryan Habana and reminds me of Jean-Baptiste Lafond - only much faster. Both are good under high-ball pressure.

We pray that Saint-André keeps patience with Noa Nakaitaci, who unbelievably knocked the ball forward over the try-line as he had the ball firmly in his hands with no-one near him midway through the first half.

The Fijian-born wing's searing pace in no way compensates for the incredible mistakes that he makes.

Huget is a huge loss to the French, and their back three composition for the Ireland match will be the critical factor - which players it will be, nobody knows.

To conclude, such was the carnival atmosphere in the early games this week that it does seem a shame to just send the weaker nations home when their involvement in the pool stages ends.

I think it would be hugely beneficial for the competition if the third- and fourth-placed teams in the pool stages had a plate competition out of the eight teams left - quarters, semis and final and also a bowl competition for the weakest teams - Uruguay, Namibia, Canada, South Africa . . .

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