If you thought last week was tough...

Donal Lenihan looks at the three key challenges Ireland must overcome in order to beat the Pumas in the Rugby World Cup quarter final...

If you thought last week was tough...

1 Ireland need to reproduce the breakdown masterclass of seven days ago

The most impressive aspect of Ireland’s win over France was their complete dominance of the breakdown. While the Irish back row combination were magnificent and outplayed their highly rated French counterparts, it was the collective work of the Irish players at the breakdown that denied France any semblance of continuity.

Ireland flooded the contact area to the extent that even when it appeared France would retain possession the closest Irish players, regardless of the number on their back, cleaned out with such ferocity that possession was turned over time and again due to the excellence of their counter rucking.

France failed to match that intensity and, as a result, the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana made no impact whatsoever. The challenge for Ireland tomorrow is attempting to replicate that level of physicality two weeks in a row. This has proved an issue in the past at both provincial and international level.

The southern hemisphere sides are far better at maintaining intensity levels and playing at a higher pace. This was a problem for Argentina in the past but since their elevation to the Rugby Championship in 2012, they too have become accustomed to playing at a higher tempo and with massive intensity for longer periods.

Their continuity play has improved immeasurably, primarily due to the coaching influence of Graham Henry who acted as a consultant up to two years ago. As a result their off-loading game is up there with the very best and they will seek to stretch Ireland laterally through a number of phases, looking to isolate the likes of Mike Ross and Devin Toner in compromising midfield positions to create mismatches for their speedy backs.

Ireland need to stop that at source and the only way of achieving this is to repeat that breakdown masterclass of last week. That will be difficult given the loss of Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, both absolutely brilliant in the tackle and contact area against France. Ireland’s clean out and ball presentation at the ruck also need to be of the highest standard as Argentina will contest every ball with a rabid intensity.

A plus is that when Argentina are pumped up, as they will most certainly be tomorrow, they tend to over commit at the breakdown and give away silly penalties. That said their pick and go game is superb.

New Zealand were very aware of that in their opening game and put ferocious pressure on the Argentine fringe carriers to stop them generating any momentum. Ireland will need to do likewise.

2 Light the fuse and the Latin temperament will take over

To beat Argentina you must frustrate them at every opportunity. The first point of attack is their line-out which is vulnerable. They like to keep things simple and throw to the front a lot. Ireland will be quite happy to allow that ploy as it reduces the attacking options for Nicolas Sanchez at out-half who likes to attack the gain line.

Peter O’Mahony will be missed here hugely as he has been exceptional when shifted to the front of the opposition line-out, making several steals like the one against Italy that led to Ireland’s only try of that game from Keith Earls.

Ireland also need to play a territorial game as the new found Argentine confidence with ball in hand is misplaced at times. They now have a tendency to try and move ball from compromising positions, deep in their own twenty two, which presents Ireland with the opportunity to force mistakes. To do that Ireland must ratchet up the improved defensive line speed delivered last weekend even further.

Argentina have been scoring tries for fun in their last three outings, admittedly against lesser opposition, but it may have induced a false sense of confidence surrounding their attacking play.

It will be interesting to see if they revert to type early on and play more of a kicking game. On their day their kick/chase is every bit as impressive as Ireland’s and all of their back three are accomplished fielders.

They will also seek to sap the energy from the Irish forwards through the power of their scrums. Their traditional style of scrummaging, “the Bajada” is tailormade for the modern game where many hookers now don’t strike for the ball. As a result the scrum takes much longer and can be energy sapping.

However that style requires their back row to commit fully to the scrum which, if Ireland can produce quick channel one ball, could afford Conor Murray the opportunity to break. Argentina are very impressive when allowed impose the type of game they are comfortable with.

When that is taken away from them, they get ratty and lose their discipline. Ireland must find ways to take them out of their comfort zone. In Joe Schmidt we have the coach to do just that.

3 Coping with that dressing room void

He may no longer be part of the squad but the considerable shadow of Paul O’Connell still looms large over this game. As we saw last Sunday when the chips were down and key players were being forced to leave the field with alarming regularity, the pride and passion instilled in this group by O’Connell, in particular, shone through when the need was greatest.

It has been an emotionally charged week for the Irish camp. Injuries are inevitable but to lose two key forwards with the presence and leadership qualities of O’Connell and O’Mahony is incredibly cruel. It is always sad and emotional when a player is forced to pack his bags and leave a touring party having practically lived together for the last three months. To compound those losses, our best forward against France and another key figure in the dressing room in Sean O’Brien is also out of a game that can bring this Irish squad to a place none of its predecessors have reached, a World Cup semi-final.

The key for Ireland is to channel all that emotion in the right direction. Get the pitch wrong and it can drain you. Hit the right note and it will inspire you. Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe have key roles to play in the buildup to this game. All stood up to the plate when the injury carnage could have derailed efforts against the French but need to be even more influential in the 24 hours before the game.

There is a different challenge too facing Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and possibly even Ian Madigan if Johnny Sexton fails to make it to the starting line as there must still be some doubt surrounding his fitness despite being named in the team. Coping with being in from the start is a totally different dynamic than being parachuted into the action mid stream as they were last Sunday.

The problem with Argentina is, if the contest is going to be decided on intangibles such as passion, desire and emotion then that is something they bring to the table in bucket loads. As the only squad in the tournament where all 31 players were born in the country, Argentina’s spirit is indomitable. Therefore your game plan and execution has to be better than theirs and that is where Schmidt, once again, provides the point of difference.

The challenge is in delivering that plan shorn four certain starters in O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Payne.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

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