Ireland were given the tough test they had expected but were still too good for Argentina in Dublin as they kicked off the 2018 Guinness Series with a solid victory to gear up for next week’s showdown against world champions New Zealand.
A week after an inexperienced Ireland selection brushed aside Italy in Chicago in a 54-7 demolition, a more senior team sent out by head coach Joe Schmidt outmuscled a Pumas side with considerably more about them than the home bookmakers had given them credit.
Eventually, they succumbed to the Grand Slam champions and number two-ranked side in the world but not before Ireland had lost the services of flanker Sean O’Brien, forced off with an injury just before half-time.
Joe Schmidt believes Sean O'Brien has broken his right arm #RTErugby— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) November 10, 2018
Though Ireland struggled at times to impose their game on their Southern Hemisphere opponents they outscored the Pumas by three tries to one but will have to improve considerably if they are to challenge the All Blacks at the Aviva in seven days.
There were a number of lineout malfunctions that wasted strong scoring opportunities inside the Pumas’ 22 while the penalty count in dangerous areas also let them down and handed the visitors a means to stay in the game via the boot of Nicolas Sanchez until deep into the second half.
Ireland had been forced into a late change at outside centre as Robbie Henshaw was withdrawn during the warm-up to hand Ulster’s Will Addison his first Test start, a week after making his debut off the bench in Chicago.
Yet it was poor discipline that was Ireland’s problem, somewhat uncharacteristically, as they handed Pumas’ fly-half Nicolas Sanchez an early shot at goal to put Argentina into a third-minute lead.
Ireland had the opportunity to level the scores with a shot at goal as they exposed the visitors’ own sloppiness at the lineout and maul but skipper Rory Best instead opted to go for the corner twice in quick succession before the strategy paid off in the eighth minute.
The pack had driven off the line only for match officials to decide there had been no clear grounding but from the resulting five-metre scrum, half-back Kieran Marmion grabbed the ball and sniped down the side to get a try.
Sexton missed the conversion from out wide and Ireland again conceded a penalty shortly after to allow Sanchez to fire Argentina back in front at 6-5 with 11 minutes gone.
Worse was to come for Schmidt’s side as a high tackle from Sean O’Brien on the Pumas’ 10m line led to Argentine pressure which was rewarded when centre Matias Orlando carved the Irish defence open before wing Bautista Delguy exposed a stretched home line to glide past a mismatched Best and score in the corner in the 17th minute.
Sanchez, too, missed his conversion and Ireland closed the gap once more, this time as Bundee Aki struck from close range on 25 minutes, Sexton’s conversion pushing his side into the lead for the first time at 12-11.
It should have been more comfortable given the opportunities Ireland created but then wasted, a lineout inside the 22 going astray and then a mix-up between locks Iain Henderson and James Ryan resulting in a dropped ball as they the Irish pack set for a maul 10 metres from the line. Those mistakes were compounded when Sanchez slotted another penalty on 34 minutes after Aki had put in a late tackle on the fly-half.
That left Ireland trailing 14-12 as half-time approached and the home side were dealt another blow when O’Brien, playing his Test in a year, was forced off with what appeared to be a broken arm.
As he trudged off, Sexton abandoned the earlier policy of kicking penalties to the corners when handed a long-range pot at goal, the World Player of the Year nominee firing over from the halfway line to edge the home side in front 15-14 as the interval came.
There was an Argentina penalty early in the second period as Sanchez capitalised on a ruck misdemeanour by O’Brien’s replacement Dan Leavy before Sexton was handed another long-range effort, just over halfway after being hit late by Agustin Creevy. This time though, the kick crept under the crossbar and Ledesma’s side maintained its 17-15 lead.
Not for long, though, as further Argentina ill-discipline at the ruck produces a penalty and third different warning from Australian referee Nic Berry to visiting captain Pablo Matera. Sexton hammered home the kick to put Ireland in front again, 18-17 after 57 minutes.
— RTÉ Rugby (@RTErugby) November 10, 2018
It had been a tight contest to that [point but Ireland finally found another gear, on the pitch and in the stands and as the decibels increased from home supporters, their team upped the tempo.
Leavy was held up over the line and under the posts and from the resulting 5m scrum, replacement scrum-half Luke McGrath received the ball from No.8 CJ Stander at the base and did some sniping of his own to claim a second try in as many weeks having scored against Italy seven days earlier.
Sexton’s conversion pushed Ireland’s lead to 25-17 and a subsequent penalty on 75 minutes put the game out of Argentina’s reach as the Six Nations champions notched a second successive win this autumn.
IRELAND: J Larmour; K Earls, W Addison, B Aki (A Conway, 75), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 75), K Marmion (L McGrath, 57); C Healy (J McGrath, 52), R Best (S Cronin, 58) - captain, T Furlong (A Porter, 68); I Henderson (D Toner, 58), J Ryan; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (D Leavy, 38), CJ Stander.
ARGENTINA: E Boffelli, B Delguy, M Orlando (M Moroni, 58), J de la Fuente, R Moyano; N Sanchez (J Diaz Bonilla, 72), T Cubelli (G Bertranou, 64); S Garcia Botta (J P Zeiss, 58), A Creevy (J Montoya, 64), S Medrano (L Sordoni, 72) ; M Alemanno, T Lavanini (G Petti, 76); P Matera - captain (R Bruni, 70), G Petti (T Lezana, 64), J Ortega Desio.
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)