With the much anticipated New Zealand test looming large in the background, the opening international of the November Guinness Series always had a bit of a matinee feel to it, the prelude to the main event.
Despite a fan-friendly 6.30pm kick off, the atmosphere was less than hostile when Nicholas Sanchez landed his kick off deep into Ireland’s 22.
A few hours earlier, Twickenham bristled as the strains of Sweet Chariot conspired to drown out TJ Perenara as he led the All Blacks in a passionate rendition of the players’ favourite version of the Haka, the Kapa O’pango.
It wasn’t the only thing drowned in a game played in a continuous downpour. One suspects that by the time New Zealand captain Kieran Reid stands at the arrowhead of a similar exercise at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday, the atmosphere will be just as raucous.
Joe Schmidt doesn’t entertain excuses but there were mitigating circumstances surrounding Ireland’s disappointing, off-colour showing against Argentina. Preparation — the bedrock of every Schmidt performance — was always going to be compromised in a build-up that saw his squad spread between Carton House in Kildare and Chicago.
With just two field sessions in the bag, Ireland were facing a hardy and grizzled opposition who had just come through six high-quality tests, against New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia, not to mention the 16 Super Rugby games played by a team manned entirely by players from the Jaguares.
In the circumstances, the 18-point spread the bookies offered the Pumas always appeared generous.
The deciding factor in the game proved to be the fragile nature of the Argentine scrum, a deficiency well flagged in advance. In the circumstances, Argentina were extremely fortunate there were only five scrums in the opening half and that 65 minutes had elapsed before the first scrum engagement of the second half took place.
You cannot hope to survive in international competition with an ailing scrum, especially when forced to pack down within 10 metres of your own line.
Presented with two such opportunities, Ireland delivered tries from scrum-half Kieran Marmion and his replacement Luke McGrath.
With the Argentinian back row committed to the scrum to aid their props, both half backs found an undefended path to the line. In the end, that proved the difference between the sides.
I have no doubt that recently-appointed head coach Mario Ledesma will address that scrum deficiency by the time the World Cup comes around given that he is sure to draft in at least three props currently plying their trade in Europe. In a pool alongside France and England, some big name is set to fall at the first hurdle.
While preparations for that World Cup has been the driving force for Schmidt for some time, the only objective on the horizon now is the showdown against his fellow countrymen next weekend. It should be fascinating.
Ledesma made the point, referring to New Zealand’s one-point win over England in his post-match press conference, that the All Blacks rarely play badly twice in a row.
True but neither do Ireland, not on Schmidt’s watch. There were so many aspects that were under par, not least, a lineout that suffered badly from the presence of a third second row in Guido Petti in the back row to augment the efforts of the outstanding pairing of Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno.
Defensively, Ireland were weak on the inside shoulder and conceded too many line breaks that, in similar circumstances, New Zealand would punish with points on the board. Schmidt will also be disappointed that the patience and ruthlessness associated with sustained visits to the opposition 22, more often than not resulting in points, was also lacking on this occasion. There was also a lack of clarity on kick off receipts that needs to be addressed.
The late withdrawal of Robbie Henshaw, due to a tweaked hamstring in the warm-up, didn’t help matters given that Bundee Aki and Will Addison would barely have had a run together in midfield.
From a defensive perspective that presented a massive challenge given that trust and clarity is absolutely paramount in delivering a cohesive midfield defensive blanket.
That said, in challenging circumstances, Addison played well. Schmidt has been tracking him for a while and the former Sale Shark looks like a very positive addition to the squad.
Schmidt will not be happy however with how Ireland dealt with Argentina’s kicking game. The redesigned back three combination looked less than assured under the high ball, with nobody commanding the air with the authority delivered by Rob Kearney throughout last season’s Grand Slam campaign.
After his heroics in Soldier Field seven days earlier, Jordon Larmour was hesitant and unsteady under the aerial bombardment. That is one of the reasons Schmidt was reluctant to fasttrack his undoubted talents in that role and why he places so much trust in Kearney.
Ireland’s lineout issues will be quickly addressed by the recall of Devin Toner, not only for his obvious aerial presence but because of his ability and intelligence as the lineout caller. Iain Henderson was entrusted with the role coming into the game, along with being name-checked by Schmidt as one requiring a big performance.
Such is the competition for places in the engine room of Ireland’s scrum that the big Ulster man will be under pressure to retain his place against New Zealand given that James Ryan delivered a colossal work rate, contributing 18 carries and 13 tackles outside of his set piece work. Tadhg Beirne may also come into the equation, at the very least as an impact player off the bench.
Given his status in New Zealand, Sean O’Brien is a huge loss for next weekend after sustaining yet another long-term injury. Saturday’s match was only his 14th game for either Leinster or Ireland since the 2017 Lions tour, as another prolonged period on the sidelines beckons.
At least Dan Leavy was superb when introduced. His performance was remarkable given that he played 80 minutes for Leinster against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth six days earlier, travelled back from South Africa on Monday, and didn’t train with Ireland until Wednesday.
Chances are he will replace O’Brien next Saturday although there is a school of thought that Schmidt may consider starting Peter O’Mahony at open side and introduce another lineout option in the back row in the shape of Henderson or Beirne to pressurise a New Zealand lineout that proved the difference between winning and losing when pilfering a remarkable seven of England’s throws on Saturday.
Such are the tight margins in top class test rugby as Schmidt retreats to Carton House to plot the downfall of his native country.
Ireland will be a far more cohesive and ruthless force as a consequence of this close encounter with Argentina. Then again, post-Twickenham, so will New Zealand.
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