After conceding a cheap opening try to Argentina yesterday, Ireland responded smartly by taking the game by the scruff of the neck and putting a landslide score on an admittedly struggling Argentina side in the Aviva Stadium. Despite spending long spells in their own half in this game, Ireland played their opponents off the park, and while there were numerous mitigating factors that could be put forward in Argentina’s defence, it was a superb way for Ireland to cap off what has been a highly productive Autumn Nations Series for them.
The fears that Ireland cannot be competitive without Johnny Sexton at the helm were finally put to bed, and Andy Farrell’s decision to opt for youth on the bench paid dividends. It wasn’t the smoothest of performances from Ireland; there were a few potentially costly defensive lapses, and it took a while for their attack to really click (which you would expect with two late changes to the starting XV), but there were a lot of pleasing aspects that the Irish players and coaches will take confidence from heading into the Six Nations.
I highlighted Argentina’s maul defence issues pre-game, but the dominance that Ireland enjoyed in that department was more than anyone would have anticipated, with Dan Sheehan’s punishing carries from the base upon his introduction to the game being particularly effective:
Given that he was faultless out of touch, Sheehan has now probably overtaken Rob Herring in the pecking order at hooker for Ireland. The Ulsterman is more experienced, but Sheehan is a superior ball carrier, and as long as his darts are consistent, he and Rónan Kelleher offer Ireland a powerful one-two punch combo at hooker that few other teams can match.
On the other side of the ball, Argentina’s lineout was a source of constant misery for them. It misfired from the get-go, with the Irish counter-jumping duo of Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony using their agility and aerial skills to either pluck the ball out of the sky when it was on target, or their mere presence pressurising Julián Montoya into crooked throws:
In open play, Ireland’s breakdown competition was of the highest calibre. Their clearing out was aggressive and timely, and even when an Argentine forward didn’t need to be cleared out, the Irish pack were quick to set the guard so that interference wasn’t possible:
Continuing where they left off against the All Blacks, Ireland’s counter-rucking was also a sight to behold, with the below clip being one of the best examples of their intensity and quality technique yielding them a clean turnover in this area:
This type of disruption on the floor has been a hallmark of Ireland’s performances since Paul O’Connell came on board as their lineout/breakdown coach, and it has added another weapon to their defensive arsenal.
Using The Ball
Once Ireland had denied Argentina any platform and built a solid one for themselves, the question then became how were they going to use it? The scoreline tells you that they got everything they could out of it, but some of their early multi-phase attacks weren’t quite fluid, for a number of reasons. Joey Carbery is still trying to get back into the groove following his injury problems, and it was his first start of this series, as well as Conor Murray’s, and their first start together in Ireland colours under their new coaching ticket.
The disjointed nature of Ireland’s initial attacks could be attributed to a couple of other things, too; the ball was somewhat slow away from the base of the ruck, there was a lack of synchronisation between distributors, decoy runners and ball carriers, and players were hesitant in their decision-making, which all combined to make Ireland looked overly clustered and lateral in places:
Going into the break 17 points down had a demoralising effect on the Pumas, which is understandable; that’s a significant margin at international level, especially in a game where they did have a foothold in the Irish half for a lengthy period in the closing stages of the first half.
The knock-on effect of this was that their defensive resolve softened, and Ireland found it easier to go through their attacking shapes and find space up the middle and at the edge, which Carbery exploited expertly:
A large part of the reason why Ireland’s back play functioned so much better in the second half was the arrival of Craig Casey. The Munster scrum-half brought a different kind of tempo to Ireland’s attack than his clubmate and his performance yesterday could well be the start to him at least securing the number 21 jersey for his country:
The replacement of Hugo Keenan with Harry Byrne was an interesting experiment by Andy Farrell, as with Byrne slotting in at 10 and Carbery moving to full-back, Ireland implemented a dual playmaker system that allowed them to move the ball from one side of the pitch to the other swiftly:
Keenan has made the 15 jersey his own at club and Test level, but Ireland will have to develop an alternative at some point. Garry Ringrose has taken on more of the playmaking duties this November (which has worked wonders for Ireland’s attack), but having another passer come up into the line from full-back presents a different picture to the opposition defence, and we may see more of this combination in the spring.
Before this November series began, I (like many others) was of the opinion that 2 wins from 3 would have been a decent outcome for Ireland, but they went one better by recording another historic win over the All Blacks, and beating Japan and Argentina (two opponents who have caused them no end of trouble in World Cups gone by) in fine style. However, the minutes on the pitch that they gave to younger players in this series are just as valuable as the results they achieved.
The Irish players and coaches have openly talked about having one eye on RWC 2023, and look to be in good shape already heading towards that tournament. Joey Carbery has now proven that he can guide Ireland to victory in big games, Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris have all cemented their places in Ireland’s matchday 23, and Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird, Craig Casey, Harry Byrne and Robert Baloucoune have made their cases for further game time, and that’s before you get to others like Gavin Coombes, Ciarán Frawley and James Hume who didn’t even feature in this block of matches.
If Argentina’s lineout work and goal-kicking had been in any way more accurate, this would have been a closer contest going into half-time, and there would likely have been more fight from them in the second half as a result. However, much like the Japan game, Ireland can only play what’s in front of them, and to be fair, the Pumas’ lineout woes were partly down to the pressure that the Irish counter-jumpers were exerting on the throwing of Julián Montoya and Facundo Bosch. If yesterday’s display is a sign of what’s to come, then a best-ever World Cup finish in Paris in two years could be on the cards for Ireland.