Argentina is a dog with size and fight

Ronan O’Gara looks forward to what promises to be an exciting weekend of rugby action and warns that Ireland should not underestimate Argentina who, he suggests, are playing better than ever before.

Argentina is a dog with size and fight

Let’s make no bones about this, Argentina are a good team. Ireland’s quarter-final opponents are playing at a tempo the Pumas have never played before.

You want to be facing a big dog or a terrier that just won’t let go? How about a crossbreed? That’s what is staring across the halfway line at Ireland on Sunday.

Let’s make no bones about this, Argentina are a good team. Ireland’s quarter-final opponents are playing at a tempo the Pumas have never played at before. The old Argentina were a team that kicked and applied pressure but they didn’t have the right personnel. Now they have the right half-backs and creative elements to play a high-tempo game.

Fly-half Nicolas Sanchez is like a little Ian Madigan at 10 and outside him at 12 is an absolute genius in Juan Martin Hernandez. I’ve written before here that I’ve never seen a person more natural with a rugby ball as Hernandez. To watch this guy train as I did for a year at Racing Metro is an absolute joy, it’s why you get involved in sport, just to see how beautiful he makes the game look. He can do things with a rugby ball beyond virtually anybody else and in tandem with Sanchez they can be a real handful for Ireland, playmakers with the ability to unleash those backs out wide.

They will miss Marcelo Bosch. Like Sean O’Brien, the centre is suspended, and his absence will be a big loss to the Pumas because he’s a really consistent performer for Saracens and his country. I saw him knock over a 53-metre penalty against us in the Champions Cup quarter-final last season and it was a real measure of the fella’s capabilities on a ground he’d never played on before — Colombes is not the easiest ground to kick on.

That aside, Argentina have some very good players available and importantly they have plenty of confidence. Where did they get that? Before the summer people were thinking they were brutal but you have to look at that win over South Africa in Durban during the Rugby Championship and in their performance against New Zealand at Wembley last month in the pool stages. New Zealand played very well that day and won but Argentina played excellently as well in a great rugby match.

Argentina still have that power about them also, not least in a formidable back row.

At Racing we had Tomas Lavanini with us last year and he was around 120kg of pure muscle, an unbelievable rugby player who’s still only 22. He’s hugely destructive at ruck time and he’s going to do damage on Sunday. You just hope from Ireland’s point of view that he does damage without having discipline but wait until you see him, this guy’s a human wrecking ball.

To have him alongside the likes of Leonardo Senatore and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe at the breakdown could spell trouble for Ireland.

Lobbe deserves special mention. His consistency is impressive and he’s an intelligent player too. He’s been doing it year in, year out for Argentina and always excelled and for Toulon he’s been a revelation, a fantastic rugby player.

So it’s not just work rate and pride that they have, don’t make that mistake. They’re flush with class as well and are very capable of playing rugby, as many of their tries in this World Cup underline. Since they lost 26-16 to the All Blacks they’ve put 54 points on Georgia, 45 past Tonga and 64 aganst Namibia. This is a team that used to kick penalties, a couple of drop goals and maybe one try, now you have to respect their ability to score and it’s going to be a real test for Ireland.

Ireland’s defence is a massive strong point under Les Kiss, who’s been in the background for eight years now and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.

They kept France tryless last weekend, the French never looked liked scoring and that should give Ireland confidence because they are going to be tested this weekend with quickly taken free-kicks and the like from Argentina.

The one huge unknown is Argentina’s temperament and that’s why I’m cautious. Ireland could win convincingly but if it clicks for the Pumas...

I’m only beginning to understand the Latin temperament from having spent a bit of time here in Paris but if the confidence comes you see a performance grow in minutes. What happens in an Irish side, I think, is it takes months to develop confidence, but it’s fascinating here to see offloads come off and the smiles break out and that makes them deadly dangerous.

Time for Ireland to minimise Paulie’s loss

You can’t replace the irreplaceable, and going into this game with Argentina missing Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, the number of leaders missing for Ireland is my biggest concern.

The other side of me is saying Schmidt has everything working so well but are we wrong to assume that everyone will just step up?

I think they can step up for a game but stepping up for three games is going to be difficult. They have three games to win the competition but Sunday is the only game that matters now and if they can win that, O’Brien’s return for the semi provides a massive lift. The pressure will be off if they reach the semi-finals because victory this weekend will represent the biggest hurdle crossed in Irish Rugby.

They’re missing key players but all the available evidence leads one to conclude Ireland have players coming in and stepping up.

Ireland have not had a close game yet, which is hugely comforting. They were in complete control in the French game. The scoreboard at 60 minutes, 14-9, might not have reflected that but at Test level it can take 70 or 75 minutes.

I’m not exaggerating but if it had gone on another 10 minutes the score would have been 38-9 because Ireland could have scored another two converted tries.

That’s how superior they were.

Of course, the captain’s gone but Jamie Heaslip will step up and how good was Rory Best last week? And if Johnny Sexton doesn’t make it the sound of Conor Murray and Ian Madigan doesn’t give you that “Oh no!” feeling because it’s not Murray-Sexton.

What Ireland haven’t experienced in this World Cup yet is the dog they’re coming up against.

These Argentine players are terriers. Their pride in the jersey is on a par with Ireland’s and you can never underestimate that. It might not be a step up in terms of physicality from the French game but it will be in terms of ferocity, in-your-face aggression and an unwillingness to concede an inch.

Yet you look at the likes of Donnacha Ryan and Iain Henderson, who look set to come into the side for O’Connell and O’Mahony, and you have all the aggression and abrasiveness you could wish for to match the Pumas.

I can’t believe the talk that Henderson might come in alongside Devin Toner in the second row. Donnacha has done this role for Munster and for Ireland, he’s the man for the big occasion and he’ll have been itching in the background to have a crack. He’ll have done his preparation and he’ll take control of the line-out and for me that makes perfect sense.

Henderson’s form is of a standard that player of the tournament talk doesn’t seem outlandish. Every game he has played he has had a massive, massive impact and with Devin Toner too we have another player beginning to unleash his aggression. It’s taken a while to unlock it but on the biggest stage of his international career he brought it out to a new level against France and there could well be more to come. Those buttons needed to be pushed and maybe it needed Paulie to exit the stage for him to realise it.

Toner will have watched the video now and the confidence he will have gained from seeing himself, nearly seven foot of him, staying upright and busting through the tackles to present ball, it’s just given Ireland a new dimension. If he folds and crumbles in the tackle it’s no good but against France he provided massive added value to the team. Now he has to forget Paulie and match or surpass what he provided last week, that’s the ultimate goal for him.

No-one’s going to replace Paulie but if the collective can improve a little his loss is minimised.

All the key components of Ireland’s game are very strong but where they’re strongest, it seems to me, is mentally. I loved their reaction at the final whistle of the France game. I don’t think a player jumped or sank to their knees and that tells me they don’t see the finishing line until three weeks time.

That’s a key indicator of where they are. As I said earlier in the week there’s no danger of a repeat of 2011, this team has their own standards. Beating France wasn’t their cup final. It was just step along the road.

This week is more important than last, it always was for these players and it’s very hard to hide that but their reaction at the end told me they were thinking, ‘that’s a good step taken but there’s more to do, let’s move on’.

It’s what makes me believe Ireland will win.

Mentally, they’re very good, physically, they’re very good and behind the scenes there’s a serious team there. It’s all planned. Every single component is still in place in terms of Enda McNulty for the mental approach and Jason Cowman for strength and conditioning.

And from Ireland’s point of view, the great thing is that their World Cup begins on Sunday.

The northern v southern hemisphere battles 

You look at the other northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere match-ups and some might think we’ll be playing out the Rugby Championship in the semi-finals but there is hope for the north beyond Ireland.

I think Wales will will beat South Africa, having seen their performance against Australia. They were the better team at Twickenham last Saturday but they didn’t put the Wallabies away. That might be a major cause for concern for some going in against the Springboks but Wales will have learned from that and their pack is good enough to take the South Africans on. And there’s another big game in Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and George North, Believe me, Wales’s World Cup is over quite yet.

South Africa have got back on track immensely since that shock defeat to Japan. Nevertheless I wonder about the midfield maturity of their 10-12-13 combination, Handre Pollard, Damian De Allende and Jesse Kriel. That’s a very inexperienced midfield axis and they may be in for a bit of an eye-opener against a battle-hardened Welsh combination, and my gut says Wales.

I’ve written plenty about the French already and how their goose is cooked but let me turn to their quarter-final opponents New Zealand, whom I expect to progress tomorrow in Cardiff.

This has been a different campaign to previous ones for the All Blacks. They’ve realised that the only games that matter are the quarter-finals, semis and final and the pool stages are completely irrelevant for them. What they’ve done differently this year is they’ve not looked to hit the ground running, whereas in the previous campaign they were destructive in the pool stages and then fell over the line under intense pressure.

Away from home, the pressure on them won’t be anywhere near that and playing rugby, the key is whether they can sustain their intensity for 80 minutes, but I don’t think that will be a challenge against France.

That leaves the Australia v Scotland quarter-final. and I’ve been very impressed by the Scots. They’ve shown great growth in their game but the two suspensions for Ross Ford and Jonny Gray have killed them. Against Australia, you need a squad. That’s where the Wallabies have the edge on it. We all know about their backs and the strength on their bench there but the Wallabies forwards have improved immensely under Mario Ledesma.

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