A coach once told me that sometimes, the best thing a team can do in their final training session of the week is make mistake after mistake because it means that they will get them out of their system before the game comes around. On Saturday night, Ireland made an uncharacteristic number of mistakes in a couple of different phases of play, and the only positive that can be taken from them doing so is that it makes a similar high error count against the All Blacks unlikely. There were positives to be taken from the match in terms of Ireland’s scrum and maul, but overall, it wasn’t a performance that inspires much confidence ahead of New Zealand’s visit to the Aviva Stadium.
In his post-match interview, Joe Schmidt pointed out that Ireland’s preparation for this Test was disrupted by the trip to Chicago to play Italy, and it showed in everything that they did on the pitch. They found and exploited space at the edge of the Argentinian defence with pull-back passes from a forward to Johnny Sexton and Bundee Aki made a few decent busts, but in general, their phase play attack never got motoring properly due to frustrating knock-ons:
These types of errors, coupled with turning the ball over needlessly at the breakdown, struggling to deal with Argentina’s short restarts, not reaping any reward from kicking straight down the middle on their own restarts and generally looking uncomfortable under the high ball, stopped Ireland from retaining possession anywhere near as well as they normally do, and while the Pumas didn’t do a whole lot with the ball they had, New Zealand will punish Ireland if they get the same amount of possession that Argentina had in this game.
On the other side of the ball, it’s fair to say that Ireland were off-kilter as well. It wasn’t necessarily a bad defensive performance from them; there were some good driving hits from the Irish pack (Iain Henderson in particular), but they missed tackles and lost collisions from the outset, allowing Argentina into the game in a manner that Joe Schmidt would have told them to avoid at all costs:
This was a far cry from last year, where Ireland shut the Pumas out of the contest early on by hurting them in contact at every opportunity. Argentina did fade away in the second half on Saturday, but they were given too much time and space on the ball earlier on by an Irish defence that should have known better.
The biggest area of concern for Ireland heading into their next Test, though, is the lineout malfunctions they experienced against the Pumas. Argentina were highly competitive in the air, but Ireland were definitely guilty of being over-elaborate with some of their set-ups. Their throws to the tail had too many moving parts and weren’t executed cleanly, and the transfer that they attempted in the 23rd minute looked like something they first thought of during the match:
A team who depend on lineouts as a source of points the way Ireland do can’t afford to get this many of them wrong, and when you look at how big a factor lineout steals were in the England-New Zealand clash in Twickenham at the weekend, it’s crucial that they fine-tune this aspect of their game as much as possible. Ireland would have been better served by only throwing to the front or the middle on Saturday, given that Argentina were patrolling the tail, and the noticeable improvement when Devin Toner came on could be enough to earn him a place in the starting XV against the All Blacks.
Gears Of War
Although Ireland were below par in a lot of what they did, they can take solace from the effectiveness of their scrum and maul. Argentina’s scrum was, as expected, a weakness, and Ireland took them for a walk at the coalface with a degree of ease that would have been unthinkable ten years ago:
On top of being the platform for two of Ireland’s tries, the scrum was a reliable source of penalties for Ireland, and there was a sense of inevitability each time the two sets of forwards packed down, with both Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong getting the upper hand over their opposite numbers.
The maul followed a similar pattern, with Ireland turning the screw on Argentina whenever they had a successful catch-and-drive:
Ireland’s counter-mauling was exceptional, too, but the damage they did in the maul went a long way towards securing the win. Ireland’s scrum and maul may have been impressive on Saturday, but it would be ill-advised to get carried away with their superiority in these areas.
They won’t have the same level of dominance in either facet when they play New Zealand, but at least they have something to build on going into that game. When Ireland beat the All Blacks two years ago, three of their five tries stemmed from the maul and one came from a scrum. Again, it is unlikely that Simon Easterby’s pack will get that sort of a return from the set-piece this weekend, but any advantage would be welcome.
A Good Kick Up The Hole
Every time that Ireland knocked the ball on, missed a tackle, lost a collision or failed to secure a lineout, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘That won’t be acceptable against the All Blacks’. It’s easy to criticise Ireland’s players for making mistakes from an armchair when you’re not the one with a game Pumas side breathing down your neck, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ireland won’t get away with repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot this Saturday. There’s little doubt that Joe Schmidt will be drilling that into his players’ heads throughout this week, and being off-colour against the Pumas may turn out to be the ideal preparation for the challenge that lies ahead.
It’s a measure of Ireland’s quality that they can beat a team who regularly compete with New Zealand, South Africa and Australia by 11 points when not firing on all cylinders, but they will have to raise game considerably this weekend. Hopefully their problems against Argentina gave them an idea of the size of the gap in performance levels that they need to close. Taking into account the fact that the team they put out on Saturday hadn’t played together since June, it’s probably unfair to be this critical of Ireland, but if they are serious about beating the All Blacks, then the error count is going to have to drop significantly.