When Daniel Hourcade resigned in June of this year, it had all the makings of a catastrophe for Argentina. Getting a new head coach 15 months out from a World Cup is a nightmare scenario for any team; New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, England and Wales have all had the same person in charge since the beginning of this World Cup cycle, and while that doesn’t guarantee that one of them will lift the Webb Ellis trophy next year, it does give them the upper hand over the other nations who have experienced changes in management in terms of continuity.
Contrary to expectations, though, the Pumas improved significantly in a short space of time; it probably shouldn’t be a surprise given that for years now, they have hit top form just in time for the World Cup, but it seems like this particular surge in performance levels has more to do with the influence of Mario Ledesma. The legendary former hooker has brought unbridled passion and a sense of purpose back to a Pumas side who had lost their way somewhat in the last two years. They’re still expanding their game plan with every passing Test, but there has also been a return of the old-fashioned, hard-nosed aggression that they were famous for up until recently.
Pace & Power
Argentina’s phase play has been, at times, lethal in this year’s Rugby Championship. Their pack look more dynamic than ever before, with Pablo Matera standing out in the ball-carrying stakes. The flanker has produced several impressive performances in the past, but now he is finally fulfilling his potential as a dominant figure in Test matches. Thundering carries from him and the rest of his pack have set the tone and gotten the Pumas on the front foot in their victories over South Africa and Australia, as well as their clash with New Zealand in Nelson:
In the backline, Nicolás Sánchez has been orchestrating Argentina’s attack as efficiently as ever (while also posing a line-breaking threat himself) and Emiliano Boffelli’s selection at 15 at the expense of the injured Joaquín Tuculet has added a new dimension to his team’s attack, with the full-back regularly joining the line, much to the dismay of opposition defences. The Pumas backs (and forwards) in general have been adventurous in the five-metre channel, taking the risk of passing out of contact for the sake of keeping the ball alive:
Defending Argentina won’t be as simple as blitzing in midfield; if rushing off the line to kill the movement doesn’t come off, then it means that the likes of Ramiro Moyano will have space to run into down the touch line and that situation normally only ends one way. Ireland would be better off drifting across and picking and choosing their moments to smash the ball carrier. It does allow the Pumas to have more time and space on the ball, but an exposed outside shoulder is the last thing you want to give them.
Stepping On Rakes
Despite going back to being a force to be reckoned with, Argentina can’t get out of the habit of hitting the self-destruct button in the fourth quarter of matches. No different to last year, a combination of fatigue and indiscipline in this period often undoes the good work that they do up until the 60-minute mark, but their performances this year have also been pockmarked by set-piece failings and poor first-phase defence.
It’s hard to know why their scrum and lineout have faltered this badly; Agustín Creevy is one of the most experienced, technically proficient hookers around, their pack are large without being enormous and their head coach had a long, decorated career playing in the front row at international level. Maybe it’s down to the pressure the opposition put on them in the tight phases, but they have been conceding an unusually high number of turnovers in areas where they were once feared:
Ireland shoved aggressively at scrum-time against England in the Six Nations in order to split Dylan Hartley and Jamie George from their props, and there’s likely to be a repeat of that tactic against a Pumas team who have shown themselves to be uncharacteristically vulnerable at the coalface. As for their difficulties out of touch, Peter O’Mahony’s presence at the front of the line is sure to cause serious disruption to Argentina’s lineout execution, with inaccurate throws from Creevy and steals from the Munster captain almost a certainty.
Argentina’s problems defending set-piece strike moves are easier to understand; Sánchez has never been renowned for his tackling, but even taking that into account, they shouldn’t allow their try line to be breached with as little resistance as in the below examples:
Jacob Stockdale’s first try against the Pumas last year was a result of well-executed interplay between Conor Murray, Chris Farrell and Johnny Sexton and although the passing from both Irish players was crisp and Stockdale’s support play was excellent, it happened far too easily.
Argentina appear to be suffering the same problem of standing off their opponents in these situations at present and this is where they’re going to get caught out badly this weekend. Joe Schmidt has a reputation for designing his team’s power plays to target specific weaknesses in the opposition defensive set-up (or an individual’s sub-par tackling efforts), so we can expect to see trademark loop plays from Ireland that narrow Argentina’s midfield so that Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls can be put into space in the 15-metre channel, not to mention inside passes from Sexton to send runners at an isolated Sánchez.
End-of-year fatigue aside, beating Argentina is going to more challenging for Ireland this year than it was last year. They’re coming into this fixture on the back of two wins in the Rugby Championship (their best-ever finish in that tournament) and playing them at the start of their northern hemisphere tour is a lot tougher than playing them at the end of it. The victories over Australia and South Africa, coupled with a strong first half against the All Blacks in Nelson, demonstrated that the Pumas can trouble any team in the world, and the confidence taken from those games could spur them on to a big performance against Ireland.
In spite of all this, Argentina’s policy of not picking overseas-based players means that they continue to find the final quarter of games arduous, and there is a gulf in quality between the teams’ benches that should be enough to see Ireland home. Having high-energy, immediate-impact players like Andrew Porter and Dan Leavy enter the fray when the Pumas tire is the ideal endgame for the home side, and even if the visitors put together a performance closer to their RWC 2015 quarter-final combustion than their insipid display 12 months ago, Ireland have enough firepower in their replacements to close out the game.
Joe Schmidt’s side are quite lucky with regards to the order of their fixtures in this series; playing the All Blacks first would have been a tough ask, whereas having to go up against a team who use a similar style of attack to New Zealand provides them with an opportunity to get to the right pitch mentally and physically. That’s no disrespect to Argentina, either; this isn’t going to be anything less than a full-on Test match, but if Ireland can produce a good performance and get a win, it will put them in the right frame of mind going into a game that will define their World Cup ambitions.