Ireland’s final November International ended in an anti-climactic 28-19 victory over the Pumas. The ponderous nature of Mathieu Raynal’s refereeing didn’t help in terms of making the contest a spectacle, and neither did the freezing cold conditions, but when you look back at how the last clash between these sides produced one of the most entertaining games of RWC 2015, this fixture had the potential to be the Test of the series.
Taking The Positives
Up until the malaise that set in after Jacob Stockdale’s second try, Ireland looked well on their way towards a second record win over a Southern Hemisphere side in the space of three weeks. They were dominant in the scrum, with Cian Healy taking Nahuel Chaparro to the cleaners in that phase of play, and bullish in defence, putting in some brutally physical hits in-close and reorganising quickly whenever Argentina had them stretched:
The ferocity of the tackles from Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien in particular signalled a desire to atone for their absences the last time these sides met. The low temperatures hindered Argentina’s handling, but if Ireland’s defensive efforts of the first half had been sustained for 80 minutes, they could have kept the visitors scoreless.
In attack, Ireland were clinical and efficient without setting the world alight, moving the ball wide from deep in their own half confidently from the outset, and using well-crafted loop plays in midfield to create big holes in the Argentinian defence:
Ireland’s pack were far more dynamic than their Argentinian counterparts, with Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander excelling in this area. Handling errors let Ireland down at times (there was an offload from Seán O’Brien to Rory Best that, had it gone to hand, would likely have led to a try) but overall, they created six line breaks and converted 5 of their 7 visits to Argentina’s 22 into points.
This was the third week in a row where Ireland switched off early in the second half and allowed their opponents back into the game. It’s a frustrating habit that they have developed, especially for a side coached by someone who is normally lauded for instructing his teams to up the ante during this period. That looked to be the case when Stockdale’s crossed for his second try, but instead Ireland’s remarkable discipline in the first half disappeared (giving the Pumas easy access to their 22) and they began to stand off Argentina in defence and take a second or two longer to realign:
Joaquín Tuculet’s try should have been disallowed, but the manner in which it was conceded will infuriate Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell. Any team who rush off the line the way Ireland do are vulnerable to short kicks in behind, but Argentina’s first and third tries could have been prevented with better sweeping.
A contributing factor in the deterioration of Ireland’s defence in the second half was the injury to Chris Farrell. Schmidt chose to bring Andrew Conway on to replace the outside centre and move Adam Byrne (a specialist winger) into midfield. This seemed an odd choice, even on first viewing, given that Bundee Aki is just as comfortable at 13 as he is at 12, and Ian Keatley was on the bench. Keatley has played in the centre for both Connacht and Munster (there was a time when his playmaking skill set looked best-suited to 12), and Johnny Sexton played the majority of the game anyway.
It wouldn’t have been a risk from a defensive point of view because Santiago González Iglesias and Matías Moroni aren’t gargantuan midfielders à la Tevita Kuridrani or Sonny Bill Williams (and they didn’t really pose much of a threat in any regard on the day) and Keatley is a competent tackler to begin with. Apart from defensive duties, it would have been interesting to see what Ireland were capable of with a second distributor in the back line. The knock-on effect of Byrne being played out of position was that Ireland’s defence became disjointed and Argentina found space where there wasn’t any in the first half.
A Win’s A Win
There has been a general sense of disappointment among Irish supporters in the aftermath of these November games. I think a lot of that has to do with how the performances and results compare to this time last year when they broke their duck against New Zealand, hammered a Tier 2 side with a second-string team and edged a cracking Test match against the Wallabies.
In saying that, things could have been worse for Ireland. England enjoyed a facile win over Samoa, but their games against Argentina and Australia were eyesores, with their new caps failing to make their mark. Wales were put to the sword by both the All Blacks and the Wallabies, and for all the promise France shown under Guy Novès, they finished the series with a draw against a Japan side who are going backwards under Jamie Joseph. Ireland on the other hand, still managed to pick up three wins while testing their fringe players against top-class opposition.
Jacob Stockdale looks a cert to win 100 caps at this level and Chris Farrell will push for a starting place even when Garry Ringrose and Jared Payne come back into the reckoning. If Ireland break new ground in two years’ time because their reserve players can fill the shoes of injured front-liners, then this series may end up being seen as a crucial stepping stone in the development of that type of squad depth.