Sexton the perfect 10 as Ireland unleash the beast on the Pumas
Ireland 46 Argentina 24By rights, Craig Gilroy should probably have passed inside to Jonny Sexton, but no-one was complaining, least of all Sexton. Team, management and crowd alike couldn’t have scripted a more uplifting first score than an 11th minute try by the debutant and as Gilroy was about to throw the ball into the air after using his fiendish side step to beat three Argentinians in turn, he was clattered in the back by a diving Sexton, whereupon Chris Henry and Conor Murray piled in on top of him before each and every one of his team-mates embraced him or slapped him on the head.
The elusive and pacey Ulster winger took more punishment in those moments than in the rest of the match.
It had echoes of Jamie Heaslip’s try which launched Ireland’s win against France and ensuing Grand Slam in 2009. It was as if, in one bound, Ireland were free. Within four minutes they certainly were, with Gilroy first to pounce on Sexton in celebration of the outhalf’s first try and so it continued, the celebrations augmenting the constant vibes of a happy camp this past month.
To put this win in some kind of context, Ireland scored seven tries against front-line opposition for the first time since beating Italy 61-6 in an eight-try World Cup warm-up rout at Thomond Park over nine years ago. It also far eclipsed the 29-9 win over the Pumas two years ago here and the four tries scored in a 32-24 World Cup win against them in 1999.
Nothing rattled them, not even Sexton sending the game’s kick-off into touch on the full and a decidedly harsh penalty against Peter O’Mahony for what most referees would have deemed a legitimate steal, from which Nicolas Sanchez hit the post.
Thereafter, from about the fifth to 75th minutes, Ireland bossed it. Operating off superior set-pieces, a rumbling maul and quicker ball, the tempo and variety with which Ireland played had Argentina in a constant state of flux as they defended a green blur. The Pumas have seldom been made to look so defensively hapless.
Against a defence that pushed up on the outside, homework was clearly done, as Ireland persistently used inside passes, went back against the grain or attacked the gain line, if not finding space then out of position defenders. Ireland also used chips in behind very effectively, which yielded two tries for Bowe and almost did so for Keith Earls and Gilroy as well.
Controlling it all, varying their game brilliantly and doing pretty much everything at a high tempo, the partnership between Conor Murray and Sexton has never looked so telepathic. Moving the ball away quickly, probing the blind side and finding his outhalf perfectly whenever he switched the point of attack, the high point of Murray’s excellent game was probably the deft under-arm reverse pass from which Sexton put Simon Zebo over for his first Test try with a flat, double skip pass.
There were so many good performances, and no bad ones, that it’s hard to single any out. Gordon D’Arcy straightened the line and carried in customary style, while Bowe was outstanding, coming off his wing to hit the line with typically perfect timing (does he ever over-run a ball?) and also running trademark trailers – not all of which were rewarded.
To the backs the glory, to the forwards the honour of out-muscling a Pumas pack and creating the go-forward ball from which the playmakers and the pacey outside backs thrived. The line-out was always likely to be smoother than compared to the Boks game and its disruptive build-up. With O’Mahony and Ryan the primary outlets, and as well as a couple of steals it delivered a steady stream of quality ball and was the launching pad for five of Ireland’s tries; the scrum being the base for another one.
It was therefore fitting that the pack should have their input on the scoreline in the shape of Richardt Strauss’s try off a line-out maul. While the result was never really in doubt from the moment Gilroy scored, as defining a moment on the match as any of Ireland’s seven tries was the huge 45th minute scrum which shoved the Pumas backwards and into the grass for Sexton to restore their half-time advantage of 12 points.
Every forward did their job and more, and there were some huge performances up front, from the towering Ryan and O’Mahony. The work of the outstanding Strauss, Henry, Heaslip et al in contact and around the breakdown was consistently effective.
When Bowe brilliantly claimed Sexton’s up-and-under in the build-up to Zebo’s, Heaslip single-handedly cleared out three Pumas.
Yet it was still hard to credit how Sexton didn’t walk off with the Man of the Match gong. Being an outhalf, he has assuredly pocketed it for lesser performances on the back of landing a few kicks – as plenty in his position do. Here he admittedly missed three kicks, though two were off the upright, but it says everything about his utter control of proceedings that of the six tries which were scored while he was on the pitch, he touched down two of them himself with nimble footwork, gave the scoring pass for two more and a perfectly weighted chip for another.
Master of all he surveyed, Sexton looked like what many have long felt, the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere and a Lions 10 in the making.