Ireland huff and puff their way to series win in Argentina
The net effect was informative rather than inspiring for head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland’s Paul O’Connell is made stretch to the limit as he wins this lineout in Saturday’s second Test at the Estadio JosŽ Fierro in Tucumán. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Any season that contains a Six Nations title has to be considered a good one, and the first campaign under Joe Schmidt was duly rounded off with a first series win in Argentina on Saturday. Yet there was the nagging sense that the real action was elsewhere, and not just with regard to events in Brazil but in contrast to concurrent tours as well.
In warm, clammy conditions at the decaying if atmospheric rather than seething Estadio José Fierro in Tucumán, Ireland huffed and puffed but rarely looked like blowing a younger, less experienced Pumas side away with a win which was even more laboured than in the first Test. The net effect was informative rather than inspiring, with 29 players used over the two tests including half a dozen new caps yet no noticeable expansion of the squad’s strength in depth. What positives are to be gleaned will perhaps be more evident in the longer term than the short term.
“I’ve learned a little bit about some players I didn’t know much about,” said Scmidt, who tellingly and pointedly added: “I think a few players are a little bit shell-shocked at what the level is and sometimes when you have had that shock you get the head down and you work a bit harder because you know that you are going to have to be a little bit better prepared next time. If that is the outcome of what was a disappointing performance in patches today then I’d be pretty happy if that can be the outcome.”
Heavy weatherConsidering Ireland had 74 per cent of the possession and 79 per cent of the territory, they made heavy weather of eventually subduing these younger Pumas who looked far more alert to the possibilities off turnovers or when the play became broken. In a remarkably similar pattern to a week earlier, Ireland imposed themselves from the start, were unhinged by the Pumas’ willingness to run unexpectedly from their own line through lively scrumhalf Martín Landajo, before regrouping and pulling clear. Even then, and as was the case a week before Ireland coughed up a late consolation try to their hosts.
Ireland won all 11 of their scrums and all 13 of their lineouts, whereas the Pumas lost four of their 15 throws and two of their five scrums. Coupled with the Pumas’ ill-discipline at the breakdown and flirting with the hindmost foot offside line (something they were rather more successful with) this also ensured a 12-6 penalty count to Ireland.
Even though the Pumas lived off the kind of meagre rations they’d never tolerate in one of their steak houses, and Andrew Trimble managed to keep Manuel Montero in check if illegally on one occasion to spend 10 minutes in the bin, the nimble-footed Joaquín Tuculet and right-winger Lucas González Amorosino were each deservedly rewarded with tries.
Admittedly, the Irish back three all looked dangerous too, with Rob Kearney making some strong carries. Ireland made nine line breaks, yet converted only two into scores and both were scored by the line-breaker himself – Simon Zebo goose-stepping through close to a line-out drive after Eoin Reddan had cleverly created the space, and Iain Madigan sealing the win with a trademark show-and-go try after replacing Johnny Sexton who, like Devin Toner, was taken off with concussion.
As this suggests, Ireland’s support play struggled to keep moves alive or recycle quickly. Rhys Ruddock, singled out by both Schmidt and Paul O’Connell, was the pick of the pack in providing some real go-forward momentum, Jamie Heaslip grew into the game with some strong carrying.
Lacked penetrationJohnny Sexton did many things well, and was full of invention, but some of his kicking from hand was off beam, and he didn’t attack the line quite as anticipated. Outside him, though, the Darren Cave-Fergus McFadden midfield partnership lacked penetration, with each looking out of position.
Admitting he was as nervous as ever before the game, Schmidt said: “Maybe if you get comfortable it’s not a good thing because I haven’t got comfortable. Maybe if I do get comfortable we might play better, I’m not sure. I’m starting to get to know players more, I’m knowing a little bit more about what is required but at the same time this is the first time I have taken a team on tour.”
Also lamenting the way Ireland failed to hold onto the ball, an even more underwhelmed O’Connell admitted: “It’s very frustrating and disappointing because one of the things we want to do is to keep progressing, keep making little steps all of the time and we probably didn’t do that over the last two weeks.”
The hoary old chestnut of a long season was not an excuse in O’Connell’s mind. “I think we’re well looked after and the person with the most games has 26 or 27 played. I wouldn’t put it down to fitness, certainly not. We were the professional side, they weren’t.”
The captain maintained that working under Schmidt made it a rewarding tour, albeit with the rider: “I wish we’d been a bit more aggressive with one another, driven standards a little bit more. That’s what good teams do, that’s what tight teams do and it’s a little bit of getting to know one another over the past two weeks and that probably showed a little bit on the pitch.”
“For everyone on this tour it’s a big, big learning curve; even for a lot of the guys who played in the Six Nations who have worked a lot with Joe, there’s a lot of guys who have two weeks working with Joe under their belts that they didn’t have before. It is exciting being in Ireland camp and working with him. So, while the results and performances have been disappointing, I think there’s been a bit of learning done.”
“To win a Six Nations is fantastic, lifting a trophy,” he added reflecting on 2013-14 as a whole. “I’d rather have done better here, but that’s life.”