Ireland 28 Argentina 19: Another Guinness Series in the books, a handful of new Ireland caps and three satisfying if not perfect victories for Joe Schmidt to ponder before he gets his players back to build for the 2018 Six Nations.
As soon as the final whistle blew at Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, thoughts were turning to the Championship, which for the Irish starts in 10 weeks with a return to Stade de France. As we have come to expect from the head coach after five years in charge of the national team, Schmidt has been in Six Nations mode for quite some time already, his mind turning over the trip to Paris on February 2 as far back as the summer.
As the November window closed with this victory over Argentina, to add to those this month over South Africa and Fiji, he can now look at the forthcoming competition with a degree of confidence.
Ireland’s current winning streak has now been stretched to seven games since last March’s loss to Wales in Cardiff — England, the Springboks and those pesky Pumas among the victims while the fringe members of squad have taken care of the Americans, Japanese and Fijians in that period to give Schmidt a significant boost in his objective of deepening the strength of his squad and its readiness to cope with the loss of frontline players.
Now for the French, and though he suggested the subject could wait awhile — “Can I think about that tomorrow?” — Schmidt could not resist the temptation to address the unpredictable Bleus.
“It’s going to be tough. Look, I thought about it in the off-season, even. It has been in the back of my mind because we know how tough that’s going to be.
“I remember a few years ago they had a fantastic autumn series and then didn’t perform in the Six Nations. Then other times they go to a World Cup, they lose to Tonga, they almost lose to one of other not particularly strong teams and then nearly beat New Zealand in the final.
“That’s what you’re up against because when they turn up they are so tough. That’s been our experience anyway.”
As Schmidt spoke, France were legitimising his thesis further as they scrapped with Japan, introducing Test rugby to Racing 92’s new U Arena with a 23-23 draw against the Brave Blossoms to seal a winless November for Guy Noves’ team that, having been swept over three Tests in South Africa during the summer, will increase the pressure on the veteran coach and make for an uncomfortable winter at Marcoussis.
No such problems for Ireland, though Schmidt was handed plenty of ammunition in his constant drive for improvement by Argentina’s late rally on Saturday, coming from 20-0 down after a dominant 41 minutes from the home side capped by two Jacob Stockdale tries, both converted by Johnny Sexton,who had begun his day with a couple of penalties inside the first quarter-hour.
Ireland coasted against a tired Pumas side during that opening half, their superiority confirmed when wing Stockdale rubber-stamped a man of the match performance with his second just after half-time. Then came the fightback, as Argentina brought an end to their arduous 11-month season, as both the Jaguares in Super Rugby and the Pumas, with a flourish, three tries coming in the final half hour. Two of them saw Ireland caught out by deft grubber kicks, the first from World Cup nemesis Nicholas Sanchez for Joaquin Tuculet to dot down in the 54th minute.
CJ Stander had then peeled off the back of a lineout maul to crash over for Ireland’s third try, though Sexton struck a post with his conversion, before replacement Pumas back rower Juan Manuel Leguizamon fley into the corner for Argentina’s second try.
The Irish fly-half added a penalty in 74th minute to reestablish a comfortable lead at 28-12 with time against the visitors.
Still, the Pumas went out with a bang, turning over Irish ball in their own half, left wing Ramiro Moyano haring upfield and from a resulting lineout, replacement scrum-half Gonzalo Bertranou took the ball from the back of a maul and dinked it through the Irish line for Moyano to end the game on a high, Sanchez kicking the extras to put a respectable score on the board and leave a sour taste in the mouths of the watching Irish management.
“I know it is a little bit paradoxical to say I am delighted with the Guinness Series and frustrated by a few things we didn’t get right,” Schmidt admitted. “It is always a little bit like that when you’re trying to strive to be better every time and there are bits that aren’t quite right, you get frustrated.
“It was a little bit glum in the coach’s box at the finish, just because we conceded that try at the end.”
Yet there was plenty to take comfort in and the Ireland boss was cheered by a dominant scrum spearheaded by Tadhg Furlong and a rejuvenated Cian Healy, the lineout leadership of Iain Henderson as he took the reins from Devin Toner and the work-rate of his back-row.
“We have Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier coming back in the picture (from injury), at the same time it was great to have Seanie (O’Brien) back out there.
“I thought Pete (O’Mahony) was really good at times tonight. They went the blindside close to the line with a five-metre scrum tonight and he buried (Leguizamon) with a fantastic tackle. CJ (Stander) just continues to be unbelievably effective.”
Then there were the new boys, not just Stockdale but also debutant wing Adam Byrne, who finished the game at outside centre, replacing the man who Schmidt said caught his eye the most, Munster’s Chris Farrell, drafted in at the 11th hour for his second cap after Robbie Henshaw withdrew with a hamstring strain and plunged into an unfamiliar midfield with fellow Test rookie Bundee Aki.
“When you look at those things, we’ve got some incredibly hard-working and talented players,” Schmidt added. “You know, probably not the surprise package but the real satisfaction tonight for me was Chris Farrell’s performance. I thought he was super.
“Having a look at those guys when you have the Robbie Henshaws, Keith Earls and Garry Ringroses to come back in the midfield, it is a nice way to be. I just hope they are all available and make the decisions for the coaching staff as tough as possible in two months’ time.”
R Kearney; A Byrne, C Farrell (A Conway, 59), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (I Keatley, 75), C Murray (L McGrath, 76); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 59), R Best - captain, T Furlong (John Ryan, 67); James Ryan (D Toner, 48), I Henderson; P O’Mahony (J Tracy, 74), S O’Brien (R Ruddock, 64), CJ Stander.
J Tuculet; R Moyano, M Moroni, S Gonzalez Iglesias (J de la Fuente, 56), E Boffelli (S Cancelliere, 67); N Sanchez, M Landajo (G Bertranou, 57); S Garcia Botta (L Noguera Paz, 64), A Creevy – captain (J Montoya, 59), N Tetaz Chaparro (E Pieretto, 64); M Alemanno (G Petti, 56), T Lavanini (J M Leguizamon, 64); P Matera, M Kremer, T Lezana.
Mathieu Raynal (France)
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