Irish reputations there to be made against fierce Pumas
Despite difficult conditions and new Irish faces a first Test win in Argentina beckons
Ireland ‘s Devin Toner and Iain Henderson comes out for the Captain’s Run past soldiers at the Estadio Centenario, Argentina. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Argentina v Ireland
Estadio Centenario, today, 7.40pm Sky Sports 1
The Ireland squad made their half-hour trek across the bridge over the Negro River which connects their base in Corrientes to the capital of the Chaco region for yesterday’s captain’s warm-up, and they’ll repeat the journey today with expectations high of a first Irish Test win in Argentina but mindful that this has all the hallmarks of a proverbial ambush.
The cramped Estadio Centenario is hosting its first Test match. The pitch is small, 95 metres long, with a four and a half metre in-goal, which will demand accuracy from the kickers, but while forecast thunderstorms have eased to showers, more to the point the surface is bumpy and uneven.
It is not of international standard but kicking and skills coach Richie Murphy maintained: “They are professional players, they are here to do a job and they will just get on with it. I think the pitch will be put into the back of their mind and they will get on with . . . It will probably be more testing tomorrow when they see the stands full of Argentinians and screaming at them. I think at that stage they will have forgotten about the pitch.”
Yet for the 1/9 and 16-point favourites, the unfamiliarity of these difficult conditions heightens the sense that reputations will be enhanced or damaged over the next week.
Just 15 months out from the World Cup, with scope for experimentation thereafter reduced, the additional pressures are not unwelcomed by the Irish management. Although this is ostensibly a new side, with just seven of the Six Nations title-winning team, they expect the same kind of disciplined display, be it set-piece accuracy, potency at maul time and control via the accuracy of their breakdown work, and in their reaction to the inevitable moments when that control slips. They are also anticipating the back three of Andrew Trimble, Felix Jones and Simon Zebo to be tested regularly in the air.
Any typically proud and patriotic Pumas team always adds up to more than the sum of their individual parts. Felipe Contepomi, now practicing sports medicine in Buenos Aires and part of the IRB’s anti-doping programme, is completing the full circle of his playing career by going “back to where I started a long time ago” in playing a little amateur rugby with his club Newman. He anticipates a hugely energetic performance by these young Pumas.
“I think it’s a young team but with new coaches. They’ve been playing in the South American second teams’ cup and they did well,” he says in reference to the 65-9 and 73-12 wins over Uruguay and Chile last month. “They are very enthusiastic but to be honest it’s a big question mark for us as to how they can do at this level, but it will be a very interesting game and great for us to have the Six Nations champions.”
A similarly second-string Argentine team lost 32-3 and 51-26 to England last June. “But this team is better prepared than last year and also we have some guys who play in Europe who will give a little more quality,” says Contepomi, referring to his Bègles-Bordeaux outhalf heir apparent Nicolás Sánchez, the Castres tight-head Ramiro Herrera, and the secondrow pair of the Stormers’ Manuel Carizza and Racing’s Tomás Lavanini, as well as Oyannax utility back Lucas González Amorosino on the bench.
Joe Schmidt expects them to be “massively combative”, with a particular threat on the wing from the sizeable Manuel Montero, who opposes Trimble and scored four of their ten tries against Uruguay, and Santiago Cordero, who opposes Zebo and has surprisingly not been plucked by a European team, given Schmidt’s description of his footwork and speed as “spectacular”.
“One of the massive things for me is that I think Jordi Murphy’s a very good player, but people wouldn’t necessarily rate him as a massive threat,” says Schmidt. “The danger for us is that one of those players that we don’t know too much about turns up and has a scorcher because he has a talent that, we’ve tried to have a look at but don’t know that much about.”
Ireland will need Paul O’Connell at his inspiring best, and Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at their controlling best. “I shout for him from a distance and it’s incredible the way he’s developed but to be honest I never doubted it,” says Contepomi of Sexton. “From the first he’s always showed that he was going to be one of the best outhalves in the world, and I think now he’s up there as one of the top three outhalves in the world - definitely.”
This is not a make-or-break tour in their careers, but it may be for others. Starting today.