Time for the complete performance

The history books show that for all the bitterness and rancour that has developed since the 1990s between Ireland and Argentina, the Pumas have yet to record a victory in Dublin.

Just as the animosity between these teams has subsided, recent events suggest previous meetings will count for very little also when they meet at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon (2pm).

Much has changed since Ireland de-clawed the Pumas with a record 29-9 defeat in the same arena two years ago. Back then, on a cold evening in Dublin, when Felipe Contepomi kicked all his team’s points, Argentina were below strength. Two years on and Contepomi may be absent but Argentinian tails are up. They have depth, a sense of purpose and a spring in their step after becoming battle-hardened by an impressive, albeit losing, introduction to the Rugby Championship.

The benefits of repeated exposure to the Tri-Nation giants of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were on display two weeks ago when they swept past Six Nations Grand Slam champions Wales in Cardiff. Though beaten in France last weekend, Santiago Phelan’s Pumas come to Dublin intent on ending the season on a high.

They have the players to do it as well, from captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and his dynamic back-row cohorts to Juan Martin Hernandez at full-back, Argentina have built on their old strengths of power and aggression backed by clinical kicking.

Playing twice against each of the world’s top three in the Rugby Championship over the summer, they have strengthened the depth of their squad and given them the confidence to compete with the best teams. Argentina’s players are also displaying some more creative skills, not least in their off-loading, where Lobbe leads by example, is a major lineout threat and can do serious damage all over the park, as he did in the victory over Wales.

It is a serious challenge for Ireland, in a must-win situation more akin to a championship game.

The mood may be bright and youthful exuberance may have made up for the absence through injury of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Rob Kearney and the other mainstays, but Ireland are still in the process of climbing out of the hole that five straight Test defeats can dig for a team.

Last weekend’s 53-0 win over Fiji by an inexperienced Ireland XV may have boosted the credentials of several young guns but it is the problems that resurfaced in the previous week’s Test defeat to South Africa that must be addressed in the here and now of a make-or-break game against Argentina.

But after the nightmare of that 60-0 Third Test defeat to New Zealand in June, Ireland have regrouped. While losing to South Africa was disappointing, given the 12-3 half-time lead, that first 40-minute period reinstilled some self-belief that this squad can compete with the best, while the injection of youthful vigour into the camp has given everyone, coaches included, fresh encouragement that there is a bright future.

The try-scoring heroics of Craig Gilroy stole the show in Limerick but it was the way a young Ireland XV side stuck to its game plan, smothering the Fijians’ instinctive style, that allowed an inexperienced backline to flourish.

Now the two elements must be moulded into a consistent 80-minute performance to unsettle rugby’s emerging powerhouse because Argentina present a different and more serious challenge than Fiji.

In the second half against South Africa, the Springboks exposed the pitfalls of Irish inconsistency, upping their own intensity immediately after the break to pile pressure on the home defence, which succumbed to the onslaught.

Argentina have similar weapons with the breakdown work of Lobbe and Leguizamon equally threatening to the Ireland’s plans.

If the lack of accuracy and discipline resurfaces today, then, Argentina’s drop-goal and place-kicking prowess will punish the smallest infraction and Ireland can ill afford to hand the visitors any invitation to score.

The much-discussed consequences of defeat are stark. Falling out of the top eight in the world rankings consigns Ireland to a third-tier seeding in the draw nine days hence for the 2015 World Cup and that means a battle to reach the quarter-finals in England.

That could be the scenario facing the Irish management — three years to plan for an uphill struggle. Avoiding such an outcome, then, will require the 80-minute performance, the maintenance of high-level intensity, aggression and accuracy, that Ireland have not displayed since beating Australia at the World Cup 13 months ago.

Kidney has demanded it, so too will Irish supporters this afternoon and Ireland’s players have to deliver this afternoon or it for some of them it may be the last time they pull on a green jersey. Recent form, rather than historic omens, do not bode well.

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