DONAL LENIHAN: Joe Schmidt’s powerplays can help Ireland exploit demise of the Bajada

Donal Lenihan on what Ireland must do to beat Argentina.

1. Take set-piece opportunity

Argentine rugby has experienced some seismic changes since the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Their inclusion in the southern hemisphere’s premier international tournament, which transformed the Tri-Nations into the Rugby Championship in 2012, went a long way towards contributing to another outstanding World Cup campaign in 2015 when they lost to Australia in the semi-final.

In 2016, the final piece of the jigsaw was put in place with the inclusion of the Jaguares in Super Rugby, exposing even more of their players to top-quality competition. That has come at a price, however, as the Argentine players have had to adapt to the high tempo, ball in-hand game favored by so many of the southern hemisphere’s top provincial sides.

In learning to cope with that, the benefits are there for all to see in the quality of their running, handling and continuity game. But the set-piece, so long the bedrock of Argentine rugby, has suffered and regressed with the alarming demise of the famed Argentine scrum the most serious issue facing new coach Mario Ledesma. In the recent Rugby Championship, Argentina’s scrum was the worst in the tournament.

Their unique scrummaging style - the ‘Bajada’ - with the power of the front five centered on the hooker who pushes rather than strikes for the ball, was perfected over years and made them really difficult to scrummage against. However, with the hooker now required to strike due to a tweak in the scrummaging laws, their power has been diluted. It hasn’t helped either that their stock of quality scrummaging props looks decidedly bare.

New Zealand’s second string front-row completely dismantled their famed scrum in front of the home crowd in Buenos Aires last September and despite regular rotation of his props, Ledesma faces a race against time to shore up that aspect of their game.

With a high-powered all-British and Irish Lion starting front-row, supplemented even further by a quality bench, Ireland will not only target the scrum to launch some of Joe Schmidt’s famed powerplays off first phase but also as a source of penalties for Johnny Sexton to rack up points or establish field position.

Given that their line-out also lacked consistency and looked vulnerable at key times throughout the Rugby Championship, Ireland will seek to dilute the really impressive gains made in the quality of Argentina’s attacking game by killing their primary sources of supply. 

If they fail on that front and Argentina are afforded the opportunity of getting their big ball-carriers over the gain line, Ireland will be in for a bruising encounter.

2. Match Pumas’ brutal physicality

The one feature that has remained constant throughout this massive phase of change and evolution in Argentine rugby is the unrelenting physicality they bring in contact and at the breakdown.

While their backs are small by current international standards, with towering full-back Emiliano Boffelli the only player behind the scrum over 90kg (14st), their forwards are monstrous. Not only that but the front five is awash with bruising ball-carriers in Agustin Creevy, Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno, all capable of generating forward momentum allied with excellent technique when it comes to generating quick recycle.

As a consequence, Argentina have become more accomplished at holding onto possession through multi phases which enables them suck in defenders, creating space or mismatches for an ever-improving attacking division.

In addition to that front five, the back row trio of newly-appointed skipper Pablo Matera, a young bull at the last World Cup who has already amassed 55 caps at just 25 years of age, Guido Petti and Javier Ortega Desio not only possess the innate explosive power that one associates with Argentine back-rowers, but exposure to the continuity game favoured by Super Rugby sides has added a degree of subtlety in contact that wasn’t always part of their game.

Matera, in particular, runs some brilliant lines but has learned to off-load to good effect rather than always look for contact. The big surprise in this unit is the inclusion of Petti, who has won all of his previous 45 caps in the second-row, leaving big question marks over the balance of that trio. 

What the combination lacks is a turnover specialist, a poacher in the mould of Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien which could prove crucial in thwarting their ever-improving attacking threat. To win today, Ireland will need to minimise their attacking opportunities off turnovers and from broken play.

3. Control tempo and territory

Regular exposure to top-quality rugby at regional and international level means this Argentine squad is more than comfortable at playing a high-tempo game. 

Having moved away from the stagnant, attritional game they favoured in the past, the painful memory of how the free-flowing Argentine attack cut the Irish defense to ribbons in the opening half of that 2015 World Cup quarter final still lingers.

Both sides only retain five starters from that Cardiff encounter. One of Argentina’s most influential and perhaps most improved players since then is out-half Nicholas Sanchez, who not only finished top scorer in this season’s Rugby Championship but also bagged a try a game in the opening four rounds.

He is the one who keeps this side on the front-foot. Leading Australia 21-7 before he departed injured on the half-hour mark in their last outing, the Pumas lost their way without him and contrived to lose a game they should have won.

Without Conor Murray to lighten the load on the kicking front, Johnny Sexton carries an even greater responsibility in managing the game than usual and will be tasked with controlling the tempo and momentum of this encounter.

His kicking to the back-field will have to be spot on as the Argentine back three of Ramiro Moyano, Bautista Delguy and Boffelli were sensational throughout the Rugby Championship, scoring some outstanding tries on the way. Sanchez is also brilliant at finding them with his deft little inside passes meaning that Ireland will have to be spot on defensively, both around the fringes of the breakdown and in the 15 metre channels out wide.

The problem facing the visitors is that their set-piece will be targeted and put under enormous pressure. With a solid platform and a superior maul Kieran Marmion (this is a massive opportunity for him to cement the back up scrum half role behind Murray) and Sexton should be in a position to boss this game.

That will lead to ample opportunities in attack for Jordon Larmour - whose first target will be to fulfill the primary functions of the full-back’s role with the assured calmness Rob Kearney so often delivers - Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale to punish an Argentine defense that has looked alarmingly porous.

Argentina have the capacity to make life difficult but Ireland should have too many strings to their bow.


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