Ireland out to sow the seeds of victory
RUGBY:Ireland-Argentina tend not to do meaningless friendlies and so it is again. Never mind Monday week’s draw for the 2015 World Cup, more immediately Ireland need to end a five-match losing sequence for the good of the coaching ticket, the playing squad and their Six Nations prospects.
The last match usually defines a campaign, even a three-game autumnal one, and this one is no different.
In such a time of need, Argentina are not inclined to grant favours, least of all against Ireland, and a 2pm kick-off on a wet Saturday has a grim sense of foreboding about it. Put it another way, not exactly the most promising day to make your debut as an Ireland winger, especially as Craig Gilroy is in opposition to Argentina’s deadliest finisher Juan Imhoff.
Even when the Pumas had nothing to offer outside their grizzled pack in a de facto seedings play-off at Croke Park four years ago, Ireland could only breathe a collective sigh of relief in a taut 19-3 win after Tommy Bowe scored a late try off a Ronan O’Gara cross kick. There being no way through all day, Ireland eventually went over and across them.
The bad news is that these Pumas are a much more hardened and rounded team now, with more offloading and width to their game, through a potent backrow of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the sometimes fiery Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Leonardo Senatore, and a classy outside three, as well as much of their old directness.
They will test the Jonny Sexton-Gordon D’Arcy channel repeatedly and the rest of the defensive system through long passages of recycling, and as Declan Kidney noted during the week, when it’s drop goal time Nicolas Sanches will retreat so far into the pocket a long-distance runner won’t get to him. Scrumhalf Martin Landajo also has a sniping threat reminiscent of Agustin Pichot.
However, without the absent workhorse Patricio Albacete and other retirees, they perhaps don’t have quite the pack power of old, and this has been compounded by the loss of the latest heir to their tighthead throne, Juan Figallo. He has been replaced by the gargantuan debutant Maximiliano Bustos and, admitting he struggles more with massive opponents, Cian Healy (circa 25kg lighter) yesterday said he would have to be technically sharp in getting underneath Bustos.
But the Pumas scrum wreaked nothing like the havoc which the Samoans inflicted on the Welsh scrum, and given Mike Ross has had another game under his belt, Ireland ought to be okay there. With Mike McCarthy more atuned to the line-outs, and Jamie Heaslip a superb outlet, Ireland’s line-out should be more secure.
A fortnight ago, this fixture loomed ominously, and although Argentina were overwhelmed by three French tries after taking a 13-3 lead last week, of late Ireland (two tries in five matches) have shown nothing like the kind of opportunism Frederic Michalak, Vincent Clerc and co displayed.
Nor, in the absence of the dynamic Seán O’Brien and Stephen Ferris, do Ireland have the carriers to blast holes and set up quick ruck ball with which to release a singularly pacey outside four of Bowe, Gilroy, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls. Ireland were a mite too quick in going to their backs with ball that wasn’t quick enough against the Boks, leaving Zebo and co to run into traffic.
Fernandez Lobbe yesterday vowed that the Pumas would “contest every scrum, every line-out and every restart” and no-one doubts they will also contest every breakdown. Therein assuredly lies the key.
If Healy has the energy, he, Richardt Strauss, McCarthy, O’Mahony et al are going to have to use footwork and pump harder, while the first and second man in are going to have to be more effective in their clear-outs. For Fernandez Lobbe and co are every bit as destructive at the breakdown as the Boks. A few potent mauls could generate space, but the pack is short on Munster maulers.
Nevertheless, you’d have to hope that they’ll have learned from the South Africa game and benefitted from three weeks together. “Argentina have a similar style,” admitted Les Kis yesterday. “If they can make their tackle with one only, maybe two, you’ve got a picket fence, do you challenge that line or find space somewhere else? It can be deep, it can be close, it can be contestable, it can be behind the ruck. I know the forwards are geared up for a real focus on how they can create a bit of havoc around those areas. If we can bunch their defence, hopefully we can release the backs a little bit more.”
Ireland will need big games from the dogs of war and supreme game management from the halves and especially Sexton. It assuredly helps the home players that 45,000 tickets have been sold and if given something to shout and sing about, as Kiss said, “it’ll be rocking”. Ireland might just have the edge in discipline too.
After tough itineraries against the world’s best, both sides are in acute need of a win, but after the Pumas sated their desire in Cardiff a fortnight ago, it could be that Ireland’s need is greater. It could also be that Ireland have more impact off the bench, and finish fresher and stronger. It could be.
Forecast: Ireland to win
How the rankings could pan out
The permutations with regard to the IRB world rankings, upon which the 2015 World Cup draw will be made in London on Monday week, are endless. Ireland currently stand seventh, and thus in the second tier of seeds from fifth to eighth, and will remain in that band if they win, but drop down to the third tier if they lose.
If Ireland win today, that would ensure a minimum ranking of eighth as they would overtake Argentina and could only be overtaken by Wales and Samoa if they beat New Zealand and France. Scotland cannot now make the top eight.
An Irish defeat would see them fall out of the top eight, as Wales and Samoa could not fall below Ireland even if they lose by more than 15 points. (Then, Scotland could also overtake Ireland if they beat Tonga by more than 15 points, as could Italy if they beat Australia.)
A draw at the Aviva would push Ireland below Wales and leave Ireland depending on France to beat Samoa to secure eighth place.
An Argentinian win means they would retain sixth place, and while a defeat would see them drop below Ireland it would require wins by both Wales and Samoa to edge them out of the top eight.
Next weekend England and Wales host New Zealand and Australia, and those matches will also count in the rankings.