Argentina 43 Ireland 20: So the wait goes on. Ireland’s quest for a first World Cup semi-final appearance had never been in better hands and yet here we all are again, staring into the abyss for another four years after another deeply disappointing demise at the last-eight stage.
As much as Ireland’s backs were against the wall at the Millennium Stadium yesterday, their numbers depleted by injury and suspension, there was little to console Joe Schmidt and his players after this comprehensive defeat by a slicker, quicker, tougher and more powerful team.
It may have been a valiant effort as Ireland tried to summon one more big performance in the absence of captain Paul O’Connell, playmaker Johnny Sexton and back-row tag team Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien. But this was simply a game too far without them when the quality of the opposition was a ferocious Argentine side that fought for every ball and gave their all in each collision, their skillset and attacking verve vastly improved by their experience alongside the SANZAR nations in the Rugby Championship. Ireland were undone not once but twice and both phases of play were, in Schmidt’s opinion, “really disappointing”.
The initial setback came in an opening 13 minutes from the Pumas that delivered two converted tries and a penalty as a previously watertight defence was cut to ribbons, the breakdown was blown away and Tommy Bowe was added to the Irish injury list.
The second time came much later after Ireland had fought their way back to almost parity at 23-20 down thanks to tries either side of the interval from Luke Fitzgerald, on for Bowe, and Jordi Murphy, replacing O’Mahony. Both were converted by Ian Madigan, Sexton’s stand-in who added a penalty but then crucially missed a chance to level the scores when a long-range shot at goal faded wide.
It proved a telling blow. The blame does not lie with Madigan, who had seen a 32nd-minute penalty agonisingly strike a post, but when his second miss went astray, something went missing from the Ireland cause. As wholehearted as Jamie Heaslip’s stand-in captaincy proved during his standout performance in green, and as committed as Rory Best’s leadership by example evidently was, Schmidt was simply missing too many leaders.
A tackle six minutes later by the 2.08m Devin Toner on a diving Nicolas Sanchez was adjudged high and the excellent fly-half edged his side back into a six-point lead that would only get wider with killer blows over the try line from Joaquin Tuculet and Juan Imhoff, which added to Matias Moroni and Imhoff’s first-quarter scores.
The Ireland boss, though, is not so sure the gulf in class was that wide or that major surgery in terms of gameplan is needed. “I think if you look at the tries they got, the two late ones were from our errors as much as anything and the two early ones were because they won the collisions and we got disorganised and we had some guys going up and some guys going across.
“We have played teams like Australia and coped. I think effectively you need the guys controlling the various elements of it. I’ll take my hat off to them that they attacked well but we could have defended much better than that and we have done against the All Blacks, against South Africa and against Australia. I think we have defended well in the past.
“Our attacking game? I felt we actually got a bit of pressure on them and to come back from just about 20 points off the pace to get within three points is also a pretty good reflection of us almost getting what we were looking for. If you are not winning those collisions it just makes it so tough.
“Two or three-man tackles going backwards were hard to contain and you have got to be smart in the way you defend and we probably got a bit mixed in what we were doing.
“Some were doing one thing and some were doing another and we probably didn’t have the leadership to say look let’s all do this if we are in this situation and let’s do that if we get the opportunity in a different situation.
“Probably if you have a look at the tournament completely I think we have played a fair bit of rugby and we have been reasonably consistent. Where we lost it today was in that collision area. Four tries to two, but two of those were scored in that last quarter, in that last 15 minutes really when we were probably over-chasing the game.” There was no complaint from Schmidt but neither was there any comfort in talk of Irish gallantry.
“Gallant isn’t a semi-final and that’s what the lads feel now,” the head coach said. “In the 58th minute when we got as close as we did, I just felt if we could have got in front I think it might have given us the confidence to kick on.
“There were a few guys out on their feet, we made a few changes at the same time. Some of the guys who came on did well, it’s just some of the other guys were starting to fall off a little bit. It had been really tough going.
“It’s tough to take because it is in the back of your mind for so long, I felt we had worked our way through the tournament really well and I thought pre-tournament we worked our way through a few things, looked after a few players.
“You work your way through your pool and it all hinges on a couple of 40 minute periods that you live and die by and unfortunately the sword has come out for us.”
The beauty of sport of course is that sword is a metaphorical one and the fallen get second chances. Schmidt has now to figure out a way to live on a consistent level with not just New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, whom Ireland visit for three Tests next summer, but also an Argentina side whose style was too hot and quick for the more plodding Six Nations variety.
R Kearney; T Bowe (L Fitzgerald, 12), K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; I Madigan, C Murray (E Reddan, 70); C Healy (J McGrath, 51), R Best (R Strauss, 66), M Ross (N White, 51); D Toner, I Henderson (D Ryan, 71); J Murphy (R Ruddock, 70), C Henry, J Heaslip – captain.
J Tuculet; S Cordero, M Moroni (J De La Fuente, 68), JM Hernandez, J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo (T Cubelli, 52); M Ayerza (L Noguera Paz, 67), A Creevy – captain (J Montoya, 55), R Herrera (JP Orlandi, 72); G Petti (M Alemanno, 60), T Lavanini; P Matera, JM Fernandez Lobbe, L Senatore (JP Orlandi, 23-27; F Isa, 50).
Jérôme Garcès (France).
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