Bashed by Springbok behemoths, now Pumas ready to pounce

AT least we were spared the usual platitudes that opposing international coaches have heaped on successive Irish teams over the years, praising our passion and commitment in defeat.

South African coach Heyneke Meyer put Ireland’s four-point defeat to the second-ranked side in the world into context when he declared that the South African display was “the worst he has ever seen and not worthy of the Springbok jersey”. So what does that say about us?

Forced to play without half of your first choice pack, South Africa are just about the last team in the world you would want to play. Despite their well publicised defections up front, the simple fact is that they have truck loads of gargantuan forwards scattered around the country who are always capable inflicting untold physical damage.

Their new poster boy, second row Eben Etzebeth, is a classic case in point. Bakkies Botha decamped to Toulon after last year’s World Cup, leaving a massive void in the Springbok engine room given that the great Victor Matfield had also decided to call time on a magnificent career. Etzebeth was due to captain the South African U20 side in the Junior World Cup which they were hosting last June but instead was redirected into the senior squad for the three test series against England where he slotted in seamlessly.

An imposing figure at 6’8” and 19 stone, when he was promoted to the Western Stormers Super 15 squad they had to have special 75kg dumbbells made up to challenge him in drills. He celebrated his 21st birthday two weeks before the Irish game and is the closest I have seen to Martin Johnson — with the potential to be even better. Just think that when the Lions next tour South Africa in 2021 Eztebeth, injury permitting, will probably be captain, their most capped forward and will still not have reached his 30th birthday.

The Irish forwards competed manfully for the vast majority of Saturday’s test but it was inevitable they would be out-gunned in the end. In such circumstances we simply have to learn to play smarter rugby. On Saturday week we face another bruising challenge from Argentina who seem to take additional pleasure in inflicting pain on Irish sides. Trouble with this Puma squad is they look more rounded than some of their recent predecessors and offer far more behind the scrum than South Africa.

We have become accustomed to the big three SANZAR nations coming up here every November and wreaking havoc on their hosts. Argentina, more cohesive from their inclusion in the Rugby Championship, have now got in on the act with their summary dismissal of Grand Slam champions Wales by fourteen points in Cardiff. The margin of victory should have been even bigger. I am interested to see how they will approach the game against a rejuvenated French side on Saturday night in the knowledge that Declan Kidney has the luxury of resting the majority of his front line troops for that vital clash in Dublin on Saturday week.

Argentine coach Santiago Phelan has had come to an arrangement with the French clubs that he will rotate his squad and not draw too heavily on their players throughout the three test autumn series with the French Top 14 running parallel to the international window. With many of the French clubs now looking to offload their Argentine stars because they are required to play through August and September in the Rugby Championship, it is becoming a serious problem for the players. Their season is now aligned to the southern hemisphere calendar, but they’re plying their trade in Europe. That can’t last forever and something has to give.

Ireland’s game against Argentina assumes far more importance than the much-hyped talk surrounding the IRB rankings as they need a win to end a worrying losing sequence and finish the Autumn series on a positive note before the Six Nations championship.

Saturday’s Wolfhounds game against Fiji affords Kidney the perfect opportunity to run the rule over some of the emerging Irish talent such as Paul and Luke Marshall, Dave Kilcoyne, Darren Cave and a few others.

On the evidence of France’s outstanding performance and comprehensive 33-6 win over Australia on Saturday night, Philippe Saint-Andre has finally begun to put his stamp on the French in terms of selection and style. It must be very difficult for a new coach to make wholesale changes to a team that had just lost a World Cup final to the host nation New Zealand by a single point even though there was clear evidence to suggest that France were far from their best throughout that tournament.

Saint-Andre ran with the tried and tested in last season’s Six Nations and paid the price as the French reverted to type and imploded. Only four of the team that started in that World Cup final just over a year ago made the line-up against Australia but played with a commitment and freedom of expression that we haven’t seen from a French side for a long, long time.

The other question on everyone’s lips is what has happened to Australia? Yes, they’ve been bedeviled with injury all season and have lost a number of key players but they were blown away far too easily. Even their famed defensive organisation went missing. Warren Gatland, on a watching brief in Dublin last Saturday, must have been worried about the form of the two sides deemed by most at this juncture to contribute the majority of his Lions party next summer, Ireland and Wales. Yet the more the Wallabies are subjected to defeats like last Saturday, the more the level of expectation grows on him and his Lions management team.

It will be fascinating to see how the Wallabies react against England in Twickenham on Saturday because if there is one country the sports-mad Aussie demand a performance against, it’s England, regardless of the code.

Robbie Deans is already under pressure but lose to the Poms, as they like to call them down there, and chances are he can kiss goodbye to his aspirations of leading the Wallabies against the Lions next summer.

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