With this November series reaching its peak against the ultra physical Argentinians, Declan Kidney should be grateful for the series opener against South Africa. In terms of preparation for a set-piece examination, that Springboks game was worth a month’s training.
Argentina pride themselves in the strength and power of their set-piece but it is not as efficient as the South African unit. For that reason alone, I believe Ireland need to target the scrum and lineout today to undermine the confidence of the visitors. There is evidence to suggest that with Rodrigo Ronsero retired since the Rugby Championship and Juan Figallo omitted from the squad due to a citing after the France game last weekend, they may not be as disruptive.
Leicester’s Marcos Ayerza has finally won a starting slot after years as back up to Roncero but is not as good in the scrum. On the tight head side Maximiliano Bustos wins his first cap despite being in the World Cup squad last year.
The Argentinian scrum made no major inroads against a Wales side two weeks ago that was dismantled by Samoa last week. Mike Ross played against Ayerza on a regular basis for Harlequins over the years and with his Leinster colleagues Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss they must target the visitors on every put in.
If Paul O’Connell represents a massive loss to the Irish front five, the absence of Toulouse second row Patricio Albecete is an even bigger blow to Argentina. Due to a lack of world class back up, Julio Farias Cabello has been shifted from the back row to compensate but is a better ball carrier than lineout jumper.
As a result there is an over reliance on Manuel Carizza and captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe for primary possession. They must be attacked in the air on every Argentinian throw. Donnacha Ryan assumes the responsibility for running the Irish lineout in the absence of O’Connell and has proved an astute replacement.
If Ireland are confident enough to attack Argentina at source they can blunt their effectiveness in the breakdown.
This is where Argentina excelled throughout the Rugby Championship, enjoying more success against New Zealand than any other side in the tournament.
Leading the charge here is Fernandez Lobbe who epitomises what leading from the front is all about. In tandem with Juan Manuel Leguizamon they are superb on the ground and masterful at generating turnovers.
But that presents Jamie Heaslip with an opportunity to underline his credentials as Ireland’s captain in waiting for the 2015 World Cup. He needs to surpass the impact, work rate and physicality that Lobbe will undoubtedly bring.
Ireland must flood the area with sufficient numbers to compete because Argentina definitely will. They have made an art form of the counter-ruck and once they sniff a turnover, in true New Zealand fashion, they will overload and drive the opposition off the ball.
Given this is Argentina’s third Test on successive Saturdays, with practically the same pack, Ireland need to go for broke and smash everything in the opening 60 minutes to suck the life out of the Argentinian back row. Their bench has been weakened by injury and unavailability which means that if Ireland can stay with Argentina to the final quarter they should be in a better physical condition to close it out.
Today’s battle at half-back should be a fascinating contest, with Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton now more established and facing an emerging force in Martin Landajo and Nicolas Sanchez. Argentina have struggled badly at scrum-half since the retirement of Agustin Pichot, with reserve Toulouse scrum-half Nicolas Vergallo failing to fill his boots.
As a result he was benched after the opening three games of the Rugby Championship in favour of the little known Argentinian club amateur Landajo. He has been sensational since his elevation. In so many ways he is a clone of Pichot, both in appearance and performance, with his lightning pace off the mark creating havoc for opposition back rows. He will keep Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry honest as he is a serious threat from broken play.
Outside him Sanchez has grown into the pivotal role, proving more authoritative than Juan Martin Hernandez who struggled at out-half throughout the Rugby Championship. In turn Hernandez looks far more comfortable at full-back. Sanchez is every bit as formidable as Hernandez when it comes to slotting drop goals, with two in the win over Wales and another in defeat to France. His distribution and tactical kicking have also progressed.
Conor Murray faces a big challenge in nullifying the running threat posed by his opposite number but on the flip side should not be afraid to have a go himself and utilise his power and pace. His box kicking was far more assured in Limerick last weekend and needs to be spot on again today.
Outside him Sexton holds the key to Ireland’s fortunes. He should have more possession and hence influence than he did in the second half against South Africa when he was starved of ball. He must reestablish himself as the attacking threat we regularly see in Leinster colours and expose suspicions surrounding defensive frailties in Sanchez’s game. Given the right possession, Sexton could be the difference.