Maintaining Altitude

James Ryan 10/11/2018
No Stepping Back: James Ryan powers through contact against the Pumas forwards in 2018. Ireland’s disjointed win over Argentina three years ago didn’t give their fans much hope a week out from their earth-shattering clash with the All Blacks, but they came good for that fixture nonetheless. This time round, the scheduling is reversed, and Ireland need to ensure that they finish this Autumn series on a high after their heroic efforts against the All Blacks last Saturday.

When Argentina broke their duck against the All Blacks last year after gathering up wins here and there against Australia and South Africa since joining the Tri-Nations, it looked like they had finally established themselves as a premier force in world rugby. They have regressed badly since, with their old habits of ill-discipline and late periods of poor defence re-emerging, and this year’s Rugby Championship was not one for them to remember, with zero wins and some heavy defeats along the way.

Considering that South Africa are neck-and-neck with New Zealand at this point in time and Australia have developed a level of consistency that matches their talent, Argentina aren’t the toughest southern hemisphere Tier 1 opponent that Ireland could have faced for their final November fixture. That doesn’t mean they should take them lightly, though; they still have a quality squad and are more battle-hardened than Ireland, and have an abundance of attacking weapons to be concerned about.

License To Roam

One of the more interesting features of Argentina’s attack is the freedom they allow their out-halves to pop up anywhere they like in attack throughout games. Nicolás Sánchez and Santiago Carreras both have the pace and footwork of old-fashioned outside centres, and they are devastating when running in that channel, changing the direction of the attack and creating moments of magic:

The same applies to their wingers, who are unpredictable with regards to where they can turn up when Argentina are on the charge. Matías Moroni carried out multiple roles in the final round of the Rugby Championship against Australia, bouncing across to the opposite wing to act as a distributor and sniping through the middle of the breakdown:

This makes devising a defensive strategy for Argentina tricky. Every player (forwards and backs) must be alive to the threat of a scorching winger trying to go around them, so blitzing hard the way Ireland usually do might not necessarily be the best idea.

Ireland also have to be wary of Argentina’s strike-plays off lineouts, as when they get quick ball out of touch, they are inclined to use interplay in the 9-10-12 channels to get themselves on the front foot:

Physicality and first-rate defensive reading will be needed to stop the above kinds of plays, but there is the possibility that Argentina could change tack and use these shapes as decoys to get the ball in behind and further out once the opposition defence has clustered in this area.

Access Points

Given the aforementioned discipline issues that the Pumas are experiencing at present, Ireland will have plenty of lineout opportunities to strike from. The question instead become what spaces should they be looking to exploit in these situations? A good starting point would be to target their scrum-halves.

Both Tomás Cubelli and Gonzalo Bertranou are under 5’10” and Argentina’s defensive set-up off set-pieces and the conditioning of their forwards in phase-play doesn’t allow for much in the way of protection for their 9’s:

After improving their fitness over the course of several years to the point that they could last the pace against all of their Rugby Championship competitors, Argentina have suddenly deteriorated in this area, with their forwards appearing leggy long before the final quarter:

This is where Ireland should get a significant return from their 1-3-2-2 shape, especially if they frequently use tip-on passes to their more dynamic ball-carriers, and Joey Carbery’s ability to coast around opposition forwards who are caught out of position in phase-play should yield a couple of line breaks for Ireland when he is faced with the above defensive picture.

Defensive synchronisation is a problem for Argentina, even in the early stages of games. Their second fixture against Australia this year was a prime example of this, where not all of their players seemed to be aware of the spaces either side of them, leaving gaps that the Wallabies were quick to capitalise on:

Maul defence has been a glaring weakness as of late, too, which is not something you would expect from a pack coached by Mario Ledesma. Being put to the test by the Springboks is one thing, but conceding tries to New Zealand and Australia (two teams who are not renowned for their work in that department) is concerning for them.

The Pumas pack generally don’t number up their counter-maul properly, and the tightness of their binding to one another leaves a lot to be desired. This leaves them without a solid core, so they then splinter with ease:

Ireland’s maul has been a different beast since Paul O’Connell came on board, and we saw how effective it was against Japan and the All Blacks, so it would be no surprise if they go to it any chance they get.

Finishing On A High

While Ireland’s win over the All Blacks has been a massive confidence-booster for their players and the ultimate seal of approval for their coaching ticket, it’s important that they don’t let their guard down against Argentina and finish this November campaign strongly. The Pumas were impressive in how they dispatched Italy 5 tries to 1 last weekend, but they tend to produce their weakest performances midway between World Cups, and they are also at the end of a long year, both in terms of miles travelled and matches played.

The focus for Ireland will be on themselves because if they lose this Sunday, the perception will remain that they are only capable of one-off big performances. Even without Johnny Sexton, they have the tools to beat this Argentina team, and it will be interesting to see how Robert Baloucoune fares on a bigger stage. The Ulsterman is a superb all-round athlete with superstar potential, and if he holds his own this weekend, he could well cement his place on the right wing for Ireland by the time RWC 2023 rolls around.

The key objective for Ireland this weekend will be not only to beat Argentina, but to put in a coherent attacking performance in the process. Ireland’s victories over Argentina in the last World Cup cycle were scrappy in nature, and even an error-strewn win on Sunday will take the air out of their tires. The space in the Argentinian defence will be there to take advantage of, Ireland just need to make sure their accuracy levels are high so that they win in style and carry their momentum into what will be a challenging Six Nations next spring with away trips to France and England.

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