Toland: Ireland second best to Argentina with and without the ball
We missed our leaders, and enforced changes meant players were in unfamiliar roles
Of the more than one million Irish viewers of yesterday’s quarter-final in the Millennium Stadium between Ireland and Argentina, how many could name the starting Argentine team? How many would even know their captain and hooker, Agustín Creevy, and that he hangs around the tram tracks as his teammates blunder and offload their way through defences.
Would they know that when the ball eventually arrives in his large hands, he’ll gain yards by aiming at an inside shoulder before pulling a Sonny Bill Williams pass out the back door to one of his wingers intent on scoring tries?
Yesterday the Six Nations champions met the newbies of the Rugby Championship, and it was Argentina who looked much more comfortable in all aspects of rugby union. Apart from their lineout, there is very little they can’t do, be it in offence or defence.
How Ireland missed their leaders and legends. Clearly, team selection was affected. For example, there’s no doubt in my mind that our player of the tournament, Iain Henderson, was asked to complete a very specific role as the designated tighthead secondrow at scrum time. This role, should anyone wonder, takes enormous energy. Paul O’Connell is many great things, but behind Mike Ross’s rear end has been of crucial importance to the ongoing stability of the Irish scrum.
Henderson gave his all at scrum time and his impact in other areas was dulled as a result. This was a large sacrifice considering our diminishing ball-carrying resources in the absence of Peter O’Mahony and Seán O’Brien. Unfortunately, Ireland needed Henderson in two positions: secondrow but also as a freer number six.
Ireland struggled in two facets, with and without the ball. With it, Ireland faced an Argentinian team tactic – the chop tackle, followed by the Puma jackal second in – that made it almost impossible for our recycle speed and gainline ability to acquire meaningful momentum. As we stuttered with the lack of real ball-carriers, the Argentinians kept forcing the Irish back while in possession.
If the chop tackle didn’t work, then they double-bearhugged the Irish carrier, again making the ball vulnerable and preventing any real go-forward. In struggling to breach the gainline, Ireland went to the air, but again Argentina were equal. Luke Fitzgerald was certainly one to test tackles, although at the aerial loss of Tommy Bowe.
Without the ball, Ireland also struggled. Not unlike in the Italian pool game, Ireland conceded multiple yards from Argentinian possession, be it off first phase or open play. Why Ireland weren’t able to get off the line and make similar hits consistently was clearly addressed at half-time because it did eventually have an impact on Argentinian accuracy at the breakdown, leading to some rash Puma entries and sloppy ball placement.
Argentina, often through Juan Martín Hernández, opened proceedings with dominating collisions, violent switching of points of contact, rewinds, and a sublime aerial game. In no time they were 17-0 ahead. They did this by getting across the gainline with relative ease before isolating mismatches in midfield and attacking Ireland’s flanks. Nicolás Sánchez looked up, saw the mismatches and acted accordingly. But the Argentinian outhalf’s life was made easier by a breakdown so clinical.
The Pumas’ breakdown was well flagged in advance. As mentioned, they chop and jackal, but no breakdown cause is a lost one. On 49:30 minutes, Ireland, having built up a head of steam, inched their way slowly but surely into Argentina’s 22. After being down by 17 points in 14 minutes, to work their way back to within three points at this stage was superb.
Had this been a Six Nations match, that momentum would have carried us over. But Argentina counter-rucked, stole the ball and moved from defence into attack in ruthless fashion. Sánchez, moments later, converted his third penalty, with the score 23-17 in Argentina’s favour.
As the game ticked along, with Ireland still in contact, the bench was needed to make an impact. Jack McGrath made a difference, as did Fitzgerald , but Ian Madigan was already on, as were Henderson and Chris Henry; the true effect of injury and suspension was being felt.
Man of margins
Joe Schmidt is a man of margins, and where a player errs outside the accepted parameters, selection will often tell against him. Mistakes will always occur at this level, and there was a kick out on the full followed by a spill at the base of an Irish scrum which ultimately resulted in an Argentine seven pointer. However Argentina made many mistakes also.
Their lineout, under huge pressure in the air from Devin Toner et al, malfunctioned consistently. But it was their ability to make bad positions into good that was the difference between the hemispheres.
So where to? We require something greater to negotiate the big boys down south, but the Six Nations is our key tournament and it has prepared us poorly for world cups. With a superb set of players and management, and with X-factor players such as Simon Zebo and Sean Cronin missing out on selection yesterday, there is some hope we can ultimately release them. There also so many Joe Schmidt positives – think of England and France!
In the meantime, I’m feeling sad.