DONAL LENIHAN: Stockdale and Farrell step up, but Sexton is still the master

The win against Argentina offered us a glimpse into the future as, on this evidence, there is plenty to look forward to, writes Donal Lenihan.

On a day that marked a personal milestone of 50 tests in charge of the national team, Joe Schmidt had reason to be pleased, not only with a 35th win to decorate a highly successful tenure to-date, but a clean sweep to mark another satisfying November series.

Saturday’s latest victory extends his winning ratio to 70% but, as always with this perfectionist, there will be issues that will concern Schmidt, not least the concession of three second half tries and the failure to put Argentina away when they were there for the taking.

The fact that Ireland experienced a falloff in impact and intensity, similar to that in the third quarter against South Africa and Fiji, will be of some concern to Schmidt. Despite finishing below the Springboks in the Rugby Championship, Argentina look a better side and, if they select their overseas-based players, will again be a force at the next World Cup in Japan in two years time.

Argentina is a proud and passionate nation. The moving tribute paid when their captain Agustin Creevy held their team jersey bearing the number 44 during the playing of their national anthem, as a tribute to the crew members of the missing Argentine submarine San Juan, guaranteed that in spite of the rigours of a punishing season, they would play to a standstill.

There was drama within the Irish camp too when Johnny Sexton was seen scampering down the tunnel just before Amhrán na bhFiann for what was described afterwards as a clothing adjustment.

This game offered us a glimpse into the future as, on this evidence, there is plenty to look forward to. Fledgling winger Jacob Stockdale looks to the manor born. Adam Byrne also enjoyed some positive moments, and, although less flamboyant, second row James Ryan did nothing to undermine the rave reviews he has earned in underage rugby for some time. He is an Irish captain in the making.

Byrne not only became the 37th player used by Schmidt over the course of the three games in this autumn window, but the 32nd to be capped by the coach since that fateful day in Cardiff against the same opposition two years ago. Nobody can accuse him of standing still since.

Having circumnavigated the globe on four occasions already this season, due to the travel demands imposed on them by Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, Argentina were vulnerable to Ireland’s early high tempo and an intensity that would potentially drain whatever energy and enthusiasm the visitors had left.

Their imposing back row pleyer, Pablo Matera, made the point during the week that the way Ireland play would suit them, given Ireland’s desire to control territory through the boot of the half-backs. As if to disprove that theory, Ireland launched a wide passing game from the off, attacking the wide channels and ran everything in the opening quarter to good effect.

No wonder their coach, Daniel Hourcade, was forced to concede that they were caught cold by Ireland’s expansiveness early on. They were left chasing shadows as Ireland started brilliantly, sprinting into a 13-point lead, with the rookie midfield partnership of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell creating havoc.

Farrell had an outstanding game and unleashed a menacing range of silken passing off both hands that showcased a wider skill set to anything we had seen since his arrival in Munster after a couple of seasons in France.

He was sensational and one hopes that, after a very productive period in camp with Ireland, his confidence will now be sky high for Munster’s key back-to-back Champions Cup games against Leicester Tigers next month. On this evidence, he has the capacity to add a missing dimension to Munster’s midfield and it is imperative that he kicks on from here on the back of this performance.

His sumptuous sleight of hand on a Johnny Sexton loop put the Leinster pivot through a hole that directly resulted in a second try of the game — and a fourth in four internationals — for the highly impressive Stockdale. This guy is the real deal and a stellar international career beckons for him.

At the other end of the scale, Sexton was once again masterful. You want your out-half to be a commanding figure, offering clear leadership and direction.

Two weeks ago Springbok No 10 Elton Jantjies hesitated as he looked sheepishly at his captain Eben Etzebeth for some direction on a penalty award on the stroke of half-time. He didn’t have the confidence to tap to himself and kick the ball dead which was exactly what his players needed after a heart-rendering period of stoic defence.

Contrast that with Sexton’s authoritative call to go for the corner on a kickable penalty with the score at 20-7. At this point, Ireland’s kicking coach Richie Murphy, presumably on instruction from the coaching box, was furiously trying to attract Sexton’s attention to go for goal as he ran onto the field with the kicking tee.

Sexton was having none of it. That clarity of thought permeated through to his forwards and from the resultant line out, CJ Stander crashed over for a clinical try. The boost that Argentina had experienced from a Joaquin Tuculet try, only six minutes earlier, immediately disappeared.

Ironically, for all the obvious improvements in Argentina’s continuity and attacking play, it is the vulnerability of their scrum that continues to cost them big time. For a country that invented the ‘Bajada’, a unique technique where all the power generated by the second and back rows of the scrum is transferred through the hooker, it must horrify past generations of Argentine front five forwards to see their scrum constantly in trouble.

To compound that vulnerability by keeping the ball at the No 8’s feet, despite clear evidence their scrum is under pressure, is naive in the extreme. Tadhg Furlong, who just gets better and better with every outing, destroyed their scrum.

In addition, his carrying and punishing defensive hits on the edge of the breakdown were outstanding.

Despite their late flourish, the visitors didn’t help their cause either by an insistence on chasing the miracle pass in traffic all the time. It resulted in countless handling errors in key attacking positions. That just wouldn’t be tolerated on Schmidt’s watch.

The other big plus on the day was the form of Rob Kearney who rolled back the years and delivered his most rounded performance in ages. Perhaps it’s the presence of so many young pretenders knocking on his door, not least Jordan Larmour for Leinster on Friday night, that inspired him to leave his coach with another lasting reminder of what he has to offer.


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