Ireland’s captain’s run at Aviva Stadium yesterday. If Joe Schmidt’s men can reproduce the accuracy of that performance against South Africa, a clean sweep of November wins is firmly within their grasp, writes Donal Lenihan
1. Lay down back five markers
When you look at the composition of the current Irish side, the forward pack and half-backs that started against South Africa appear nailed on for Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France in Paris next February.
The serious contenders to force a change up front are Jack McGrath, whose ongoing battle with Cian Healy for club and country will be extended into the new year, and new second row sensation James Ryan.
McGrath had a super Lions tour in New Zealand but Healy impressed the Irish management on the summer tour and looks revitalised. Ryan has been earmarked for greatness since captaining the Ireland U20s to a World Cup final in 2016. He is the heir apparent to fellow Leinster lock Devin Toner and a big performance from him today could force that transition earlier than expected.
There will be no shifting Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at half-back but the composition of the outside backs remains fluid. That is why performances today, across a three-quarter line with only four caps between them, will prove pivotal to Joe Schmidt’s thinking in future.
Bundee Aki made a big impression on his international debut two weeks ago but will have noted the fact Garry Ringrose is set to make his long-awaited return to Leinster colours soon. Outstanding in defence, Aki needs to show more in attack today either through line breaks or creating opportunities for others.
The best of midfield partnerships take time to develop and Robbie Henshaw holds the key to the direction Schmidt will take in the Six Nations. Throughout a very fruitful partnership with Aki at Connacht, Henshaw played with No. 13 on his back.
Alongside Ringrose at Leinster, he is a No. 12. The hamstring tweak that rules him out today will not be welcomed by Schmidt but it does offer him another chance to run the rule over Chris Farrell. That combination of Aki and Farrell isn’t one the coach would have envisioned coming into this series and Farrell has a lot to play for.
The fact that Schmidt admitted after last Saturday’s outing he had hoped to give Henshaw 15 minutes at full-back might even suggest the possibility of Aki teaming up with Ringrose at some stage, with Henshaw reverting to his original position. Interesting!
In the back three, Jacob Stockdale is the one with most to gain from this autumn series. We know that when Rob Kearney is fit, he is picked. Stockdale was impressive throughout against the Springboks and finished on a high with a great line break and a well-taken try.
He is the type of winger Schmidt likes, with his height an added bonus in contesting Murray’s box kicks. Right now, he looks well placed to start in Paris and could copperfasten that left-wing berth with another positive performance today.
The fact that Andrew Conway has impressed in two different roles in this series, at full-back and on the wing, will stand to him down the line but today yet another highly promising talent is offered a debut in Adam Byrne. He too is an imposing figure, another 6’4” winger who is commanding in the air and lethal in possession. He does have issues with his decision-making in defence at times and must address those today.
2. Address breakdown shortcomings
Ireland’s record-breaking defeat of South Africa can be attributed to the fact that the team executed with precision on all the key elements of their game-plan, namely the set-piece, their kicking game and in defence. These form the basics of the game but competing successfully at international level often comes down to that.
Schmidt has made an art form of getting this team to deliver on the key elements of the game with consistent accuracy, under pressure. That is why Ireland’s uncharacteristic sloppiness at the breakdown against Fiji will have disappointed him.
What makes today’s contest more fascinating is the fact that Argentina openly admit they prefer playing against Ireland’s style — favouring territory through a kicking game and the physicality they bring to the breakdown — than the all-court, running game favoured by the Wallabies and All Blacks.
However, it’s all very well knowing what’s coming but will the Pumas be able to deal with Ireland’s kicking game any better than the Springboks? At least they look better equipped in the back field, with Joaquin Tuculet outstanding at full-back and Emiliano Boffelli a real find on the wing.
Argentina looked out on their feet at times against Italy but, ironically, finished much the stronger. That would suggest there is one big performance left in the tank and it will come as no surprise if they deliver that today.
With that battle at the breakdown key to the ability to produce quick ball, Ireland look to have an edge in the back row with a more balanced trio on show. Argentina have opted for size and lack a real fetcher or groundhog. That will suit Sean O’Brien
What they will do is contest the collisions furiously. Ireland were far too slow to support the ball carrier and to clean out beyond the ball against Fiji. That needs to be addressed today as, if they can deliver quick ball to Murray and Sexton, Ireland will do damage.
3. Expose set-piece vulnerability
Not unlike South Africa two weeks ago, Argentina arrive in Dublin with big question marks hanging over them. It’s been an extraordinarily demanding season for this squad, servicing both the Super Rugby demands of the Jaguares and of the national team in the Rugby Championship.
Right now, their forwards look out on their feet. Their scrum was mangled against Italy, conceding a free kick and three penalties in crucial positions. They were equally passive at the breakdown and it appeared as if, now that they meet the southern hemisphere’s best on a regular basis, playing against Italy just didn’t excite them. That is unlikely to be the case today.
Two years ago at the World Cup, Argentina introduced a whole host of dynamic young forwards, including an exciting second row trio of Matias Alemanno, Tomas Lavanini, and Guido Petti — all under 23 at the time — with the potential to lead them into the future. With that trio, reserve hooker Julian Montoya and explosive young back rowers Pablo Matera and Facundo Isa — now unavailable as an overseas player — you felt their pack could develop into something truly menacing. Perhaps they have been asked to play too much rugby since then but that unit just hasn’t kicked on to the extent I had anticipated. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen before the next World Cup.
Right now, their scrum is a mess and you can see the strain on their outstanding captain Agustín Creevy every time he gets set to step into a scrum. Ireland must seek to cement that doubt from early on today and drain confidence out of the, once-dominant Argentina attacking weapon.
Their lineout has been equally wobbly and Ireland will be keen to attack them in the air on all of Creevy’s deliveries. Behind the scrum, the visitors have some really tasty runners and steppers. However they are not the biggest and will suffer if Ireland reproduce the type of punishing line speed in defence that rendered the Springbok attack rudderless.
Ireland have the physical and mental attributes necessary to inflict another defeat in what has proved a thoroughly underwhelming season for Argentina. If they can reproduce the accuracy of that performance against South Africa, a clean sweep of November wins is firmly within grasp.
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