Argentina’s addition to the Tri-Nations in 2012 has been a significant turning point in their development. The need for a brand of rugby that would allow them to compete with The Big Three, not to mention Graham Henry’s involvement in their coaching ticket from 2012 to 2013, has led to a game plan predicated on multiple phases, forwards being comfortable passing the ball before, or offloading out of, contact, and regularly getting the ball into the five-metre channel that mimics what New Zealand have been doing for years.
It’s the polar opposite of the kick-heavy tactics that they used to good effect at RWC 2007, but they have become much more competitive across the board, even if the results don’t always go their way. They are in the process of fine-tuning their game plan, but two years ago, Ireland learned the hard way just how devastating they can be. The wounds of that harrowing quarter-final are still fresh in the mind for many Irish supporters, and more importantly, for Joe Schmidt, and it remains to be seen if his team will heed the lessons from it.
Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe being retired from international rugby and Facundo Isa being unavailable for selection due to his club commitments with Toulon hasn’t stopped their pack from being incredibly abrasive and dynamic (most notably Agustín Creevy, Tomás Lavanini and Pablo Matera), and their handling has improved immeasurably over the last few years. When they get beyond the gain line and free their hands to link up with the support players, it gives their lethal broken-field runners like Matías Moroni, Ramiro Moyano and Joaquín Tuculet the freedom to tear defences to pieces. The execution of their running lines isn’t as slick as it could be, but they are incisive enough to exploit any space afforded to them:
Although their back three normally receive the plaudits, Argentina’s half-backs are electric. Martín Landajo and Gonzalo Bertranou are both pacy, quick-thinking scrum-halves and Ireland’s fringe defence is going to be put to the test for the game’s entirety. Nicolás Sánchez’ form has been up and down throughout the year, but on his day, he is one of the top out-halves in the world. His playmaking ability is world class and he has a nose for the try line, and a broad range of tactical kicks.
Despite his undoubted quality, he has a habit of barking at referees when things aren’t going his way; it’s not something that benefits him or his team, and a disintegration of his skill set tends to follow. He looked to be carrying a shoulder injury during the Rugby Championship, and if Ireland can make him work with an unstable platform and minimise his time and space on the ball, it will go a long way towards preventing Argentina’s multi-phase attack from getting in gear. The best way of playing a side who like to hold on to the ball is to ramp up the intensity, rush up in their faces to pressurise them into handling errors and pounce on any breakdown turnover opportunities that arise, but all of those things are easier said than done.
When you consider where Argentina’s normal point of attack is, Schmidt has taken a gamble by selecting Adam Byrne on the right wing. It’s not right to knock a coach for giving a young player a chance at the top level (indeed, Schmidt has been criticised for not doing so with Ireland in the past), but defence is not Byrne’s strong suit. Ireland are already without their chief enforcer in the back line, Robbie Henshaw, because of a hamstring injury, and it’s asking an awful lot of a three-quarter line with 5 caps between them to hold down the fort against an Argentina team that like having a cut at teams in the tramlines.
A Work In Progress
Even though the Pumas have been relatively successful at playing ball-in-hand rugby, the main reason why they fall short in certain games is their skills are not at the same level as New Zealand yet. The relative deficit in skill levels between Argentina and their Rugby Championship rivals causes a large number of the chances that they create (and they do create several of them) get squandered:
A noticeable trend in Argentina’s performances in the Rugby Championship was that once they started a game well, they showed no signs of slowing down until the last quarter. They started the New Plymouth Test against New Zealand like a juggernaut, and Steve Hansen’s side couldn’t wrestle control from them until the 51st minute, after a miscued Argentinian box-kick culminated in a magnificent solo try for Vaea Fifita.
They are inclined to be strong for 50-60 minutes and then run out of steam, conceding several points because of slow defensive reorganisation borne out of their concentration and energy ebbing away, with a great deal of their conceded scores coming in the final quarter (they gave away an average of 14 points per game in the in the last 20 minutes of their Rugby Championship Tests).
The reason for this end-of-game downfall is that their aerobic fitness isn’t where it should be for the type of rugby they play. In the below examples, we see a pattern of how Argentina concede seven-pointers in the latter stages of games. South Africa and Australia scored these tries against them by carrying one-out for 1-2 phases and then moving the ball out to the touch line:
The reasoning behind this tactic is simple: by carrying the ball close-in, they force the Argentinian forwards to cluster in around the ruck and then once the ball is passed beyond inside centre, they don’t have the legs to push out quickly enough, meaning that their backs are unable to drift across and close down the space in the five-metre channel, the knock-on effect being that they are faced with an overlap and have to put in side-on tackles. If Ireland can drag in their defenders by having Iain Henderson, Seán O’Brien and CJ Stander carry the ball tight to the ruck, and then spread it wide, Jacob Stockdale and Adam Byrne will have acres of space to take advantage of.
On an individual level, Jerónimo de la Fuente and Matías Moroni are both prone to shooting up out of the line in defence in an attempt to put in a big hit, but in doing so, they leave a dog-leg behind them. This, along with their pack’s inability to get up off the deck and realign quickly enough as a game wears on, means that Ireland should have enough try-scoring opportunities to put the Pumas to the sword in the final quarter when their defence is in disarray.
Apart from the aforementioned fitness issues, another reason for Argentina’s fourth-quarter collapses seems to be the amount of emotional energy they expend when trying to mount a serious challenge against the likes of the All Blacks. They looked absolutely gassed in the last round of the Rugby Championship and it must be remembered that they have had a long year: three Tests against England, two each against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, one against Italy and one against Georgia.
That’s seven bruising encounters with monster packs and four against teams who like to run the opposition off their feet. Add to that the fact that all of their squad are currently playing for the Jaguares, who are only in their second year of Super Rugby, and you have a group who now have a lot more top-flight rugby packed into every year than what they were used to pre-2016.
When Tempers Flare
An Argentinian player being handed a yellow card was a regular occurrence at RWC 2015. Their discipline continues to be a major issue and they have conceded an average of 11 penalties per game across all of their Tests this year. Bad discipline is usually a collective problem with teams, though in Argentina’s case, there is one individual who stands out; Tomás Lavanini is a freakishly powerful athlete, but his propensity for committing all different types of offences has hamstrung his side recently. His teammates are no angels either, and being denied possession frustrates them to the point of conceding cheap penalties:
This, coupled with Argentina’s aptitude with ball in hand, makes it imperative that Ireland get the upper hand in possession. Their own discipline will also be a concern; if they give away penalties anywhere in their own half, Emiliano Boffelli will punish them all evening with his outstanding capacity for putting place kicks between the posts from long-range, and chasing a game is Ireland’s Achilles heel.
Argentina’s poorer displays are characterised by a deep lethargy that sets in from the off, and when they start badly, they normally don’t recover. However, it is vital that Ireland prepare for them as if they are going to be at their most dangerous. This Saturday will be billed as a revenge mission by some, but the key for Ireland is to be cold-blooded, disciplined and patient, and ensure that they are on the right side of the scoreboard by the 60-minute mark, because if they are ahead going into the final quarter, Daniel Hourcade’s side won’t have anything left in the tank.
Whether Ireland have enough experience in their starting XV to be that clinical remains to be seen, because Adam Byrne isn’t the only big selection call ahead of this fixture. James Ryan performed well off the bench against the Springboks the week before last and excelled against a monstrous Montpellier pack in the Champions Cup. He has been long-earmarked as a future world class lock and a potential Ireland captain, but his chances this season have come mainly alongside Devin Toner when Scott Fardy is unavailable. He is the apprentice in that partnership, with Toner being the lineout caller and tighthead scrummager in order to allow his neophyte colleague the time to adjust to the higher demands of professional rugby.
These are roles that Ryan can certainly grow into in time, but throwing him in the deep end against a grizzled Pumas eight is a baptism of fire, and while he is more likely to swim than sink this weekend, it speaks volumes about the faith that Schmidt has placed in him (and the same can be said for several of the younger players in Ireland’s squad). A loss will see the Ireland head coach criticised for not going with experience against top-tier opposition, whereas a win will see the usual rolling out of the ‘Saint Joe’ headlines for getting another November clean sweep without his first-choice players.
Whatever the result, if Schmidt was guilty of being conservative with his selections in the past, that’s definitely not the case now. It’s a huge leap to go from selecting fringe players against the likes of Canada and Romania to putting them in the line of fire against Tier 1 opposition, and it’s a clear indication that he is making true on his promise to give Ireland genuine strength in depth for RWC 2019.