Ireland on guard for Puma threat

IT’S claimed there were 10,000 Irish people among the 28,803 attendance in the Adelaide Oval for the World Cup clash of Ireland and Argentina on October 26 last year.

If so, it's a miracle that all of them walked out of that beautiful stadium at the end of the game still in one piece and without their nerves frazzled to the bone. They had just seen a very shaky Irish team clinch their place in the quarter-finals by a mere point, 16-15.

And if the fans felt like that, you can just imagine the torment the players and the management endured. Coach Eddie O'Sullivan's ashen countenance as he made his way to the dressing room, along with the look he gave its residents told the story better than any words could have.

A lot has changed ahead of this afternoon's meeting at Lansdowne Road (5.30pm). In between, they have again come out in the same pool for the 2007 World Cup so that something extra will be at stake each time they clash from now on.

One might have expected Argentina to have little scope to ring the changes in 13 months but they field only four of the side that started the World Cup game, Felipe Contepomi, scrum-half Augustin Pichot, second-row Rimas Alvarez and flanker Lucas Ostiglia.

In contrast, Ireland retain ten of the starting Adelaide line-up. While it could be argued that this demonstrates that Ireland are the more settled combination, it also suggests the Pumas now have the strength and depth to further their ambition of becoming a genuine world power.

Argentina have often appeared to get a bit of a raw deal from the game's power-brokers. To their great credit, the Pumas have been able to overcome all the handicaps to remain right up there at the top of the second division of rugby nations and indeed they may well have gone a step further after defeating the reigning European champions France by a decisive 24-14 margin in their own backyard of Marseilles last week.

"They are developing into a pretty complete team and are evolving all the time," observes O'Sullivan. "Their set piece is good and they have genuine pace out wide. They are on a mission to prove they are no longer a second-tier side and on current form they are right up there. Their win over France wasn't an accident, it was a comprehensive victory."

Accordingly, nobody should be under any illusions about the extent of the challenge awaiting Brian O'Driscoll and his side this evening. You certainly wouldn't give them much chance unless they improve appreciably on that nervous, uneven performance in Adelaide.

There are a few old friends in the Puma pack, Rodrigo Roncero and Mario Ledesma in the front-row and, of course, Alvarez, Longo and Ostiglia while there are few more wily scrum-halves in the business than the hugely experienced Pichot.

His head to head with Peter Stringer promises all sorts of excitement.

Contepomi may be unable to hold down the number ten jersey with Leinster but had he played at out-half in the World Cup ahead of the hapless Gonsalvo Quesada, Ireland's problems would have surely deepened. Moreover, he demonstrated his current form with a 14-point contribution against the French.

Today is just an autumn Test, a long way removed from the enormity of the Adelaide game, but as O'Sullivan emphasises: "There's a momentum you want to keep, we're managing to win more than we lose, but it's a fine line."

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