Powerful Pumas will test resolve

THE end is near, but will tomorrow’s game against Argentina mark a fresh dawn for Ireland?

With the finishing line to this autumn international series at the Aviva Stadium in sight and an extremely mixed bag of results and performances over the past three weekends already banked, a victory over the Pumas, Ireland’s most dogged rivals of recent years, is vital if Declan Kidney and his squad are to head into 2011 with vigour, purpose and optimism for next year’s Six Nations and World Cup.

After the sorry defeat to South Africa and the laboured win over Samoa, the mood has lightened this week following last Saturday’s heartening, albeit losing, performance against New Zealand. Losing to an All Blacks side that will start next September’s World Cup on home soil as red-hot favourites was no disgrace and Ireland’s attempt to play a more expansive game against them was a sign that Kidney’s blueprint is progressing.

Now it is time to move the development on further and match a win with a winning display against Argentina. Trouble is, the extremely physical Pumas may not be the ideal opponents to continue the ambitious rugby Ireland displayed at times against the All Blacks, as the head coach acknowledged yesterday following the announcement of his starting XV.

“We are trying to develop our own way of playing and I think we are well on the route to that,” Kidney said. “Part of that way of playing is, in Ireland we have certain resources and one of those is that we have to be smart in the way that we approach every game. A basic thing, like New Zealand gave you the outside shoulder to attack, Argentina don’t, they’re inclined to flood the midfield so why go to a place where the opposition are defending strongly?

“Fellas have to decide what to do out on the pitch, part of the game plan is the trust we have in fellas to be good decision-makers, that’s what we’re working towards.”

To that end, Ireland will start with a new half-back partnership in scrum-half Peter Stringer and fly-half Jonathan Sexton, breaking up the provincial pairings of Leinster’s Eoin Reddan and Sexton, which started the South Africa and New Zealand games, and Stringer and Ronan O’Gara, who began against Samoa. Stringer’s inclusion is one of five changes from the starting line-up which lost 38-18 to New Zealand, with three enforced by injury and the return to fitness of the other.

Geordan Murphy comes in at full-back to replace the injured Rob Kearney with Andrew Trimble in on the left wing for Luke Fitzgerald and Sean Cronin replacing Rory Best at hooker. Tony Buckley has recovered from a hip injury that the tighthead prop suffered against the Springboks.

Gordon D’Arcy continues alongside captain Brian O’Driscoll in midfield, and with Trimble getting the nod to replace Fitzgerald, Keith Earls remains on the bench for the third game in succession.

“Sunday is all about trying to win a Test match,” Kidney said by way of explanation for his selection, adding that a wish for continuity was just as important as developing strength in depth in his squad. The one element of intrigue, though, is the Stringer-Sexton combination with the ever-cagey Kidney only hinting at the reasoning behind the decision.

“They haven’t started before. They played 15 minutes together last week and I thought it went okay,” he said. “Peter’s a good guy for clearing the ruck area, and always presents the ball properly. Jonathan’s been going okay and that’s why he gets another go.

“It’s a little bit of the unknown. It’s a combination that we haven’t started before and now’s the time to see it.”

History suggests a close battle despite Argentina having not won in six visits to Dublin, while the forecast for extremely cold conditions and the absence of tries from the Pumas’ 12-6 defeat to France last weekend also points to a forward-oriented encounter, with discipline and penalties the key.

That could spell trouble for Ireland given their recent problems at scrum-time, with Cian Healy penalised regularly against the All Blacks and the Argentine front row of Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo one of the toughest in the business.

COUNTER that, though, with Ireland’s regained confidence in the lineout and both teams have certain platforms for attack.

Ireland edge the battle of the back divisions although in Felipe Contepomi and a talented back three highlighted by Kidney yesterday, the threat is there from the visitors.

It will not be as exhilarating as the All Blacks’ game last week but it could be just as intriguing, although drawing parallels with 2008, when Ireland lost to New Zealand then beat Argentina the next week before kicking on to the Six Nations Grand Slam the following spring may be a tad premature. Victory should be achieved, however, and captain O’Driscoll certainly believes the team is ready to continue the good foundations laid down last week.

“We’re a work in progress,” O’Driscoll said. “The way we have trained properly hasn’t quite been shown in games, although far more so in patches of the New Zealand game.

“There are other variables, namely the weather. If it’s dry all week and then it rains at the weekend then you’ve got to adapt to that and change your game plan. So there’s a huge dependency on having a dry ball to play the way we’ve been trying to but we’re trying to go in the right direction and it’s been enjoyable.”

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