Ire­land to ex­tend their proud home record

Ex­pected edge at scrum time and the break­down to be key for Sch­midt’s side

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

His­tor­i­cally, Ire­land and Ar­gentina rarely met un­til the noughties – where­upon fa­mil­iar­ity bread con­tempt.

Then, out­side of World Cups, al­though fu­elled by them, Ire­land–Ar­gentina gen­er­ally fea­tured spite­ful and of­ten dull arm-wres­tles. The heat has been taken out of the ri­valry in lat­ter years, and the rugby matches have been con­sid­er­ably more open.

Ire­land have cer­tainly been taught to re­spect Ar­gentina in the pro­fes­sional era. A 3-1 head-to-head record in World Cups will do that.

The Pu­mas’ 43-20 quar­ter-fi­nal vic­tory over Ire­land in 2015 also still res­onates, and par­tic­u­larly drives Joe Sch­midt, even if only six of the Ir­ish 23 that night sur­vive, and nine of Ar­gentina’s match-day squad.

The Pu­mas of re­cent times are liv­ing proof that a coun­try’s na­tional team can com­pletely rein­vent it­self. Al­low­ing for the World Cup crew of 2007, when ‘El Mago’ Juan Martin Her­nan­dez, Felipe Con­tepomi et al were in their pomp, where once the Pu­mas were syn­ony­mous with a po­tent scrum, driv­ing maul, one-off run­ners and a slow tempo game, now they are renowned for their in­ven­tive run­ning game.

Where once they were famed for a pro­duc­tion of props, now they have a con­veyor belt of out­side backs, as well as ath­letic ball-car­ry­ing for­wards.

Three years ago in Cardiff, Ire­land were shred­ded out wide by San­ti­ago Cordero, now at Ex­eter, Joaquim Tu­culet (re­cov­er­ing from an ACL in­jury) and the Rac­ing-based Juan Imhoff.

The cur­rent Pu­mas out­side trio of full-back Emil­iano Bof­felli and wingers Bautista Del­guy and Ramiro Moy­ano carry very much the same threat. Each scored three tries in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

Se­ri­ous threat

As Brian O’Driscoll notes, the width the Pu­mas play with means they will be a se­ri­ous threat to an Ir­ish de­fence which can some­times be­come too nar­row, and their counter-at­tack­ing also means they will se­verely test Ire­land’s kick­ing game, and es­pe­cially the box kick­ing of Kieran Marmion.

By con­trast, their once-famed scrum has be­come an Achilles heel, so much so that it only achieved an 80 per cent suc­cess rate on its own ball in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

“I think we’ve been strug­gling for the last cou­ple of years,” ad­mit­ted head coach Mario Ledesma, who ac­cepts that the Pu­mas’ scrum has to be re­vived.

In this he cited how Tadhg Fur­long has gone from be­ing “not very good” at the 2015 World Cup to be­ing “the best [tight-head] in the world”.

Ar­gentina are also miss­ing three front­line props in the Sara­cens-based Juan Fi­gallo, Stade Fran­cais tight-head Ramiro Her­rera and the in­jured Nahuel Te­taz Cha­paro.

Ledesma made a sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion when pro­mot­ing Pablo Mat­era to cap­tain. Quick, strong and won­der­fully ath­letic, Mat­era is also only the sec­ond Pu­mas’ back­rower to reach 50 caps, and all by the age of 25.

“He’s re­ally au­then­tic. He’s the real thing,” said Ledesma af­ter the first cap­tain’s run un­der Mat­era’s watch.

“When you talk to him he says what he thinks and he does what he thinks. That’s a re­ally good qual­ity to­day . . . Then ob­vi­ously ex­cel­lent clar­ity on the field, ef­fort, sac­ri­fice, phys­i­cal­ity, he has a lot of qual­i­ties as a rugby player and as a per­son. He’ll be a cap­tain for many years.”

Along­side Mat­era, the in­clu­sion of a third lock, Guido Petti, in the Pu­mas’ back row for the first time in his ca­reer, is per­haps a means of beef­ing up their pack, al­though Sch­midt ex­pects them to mix it up, and play “with a very rapid tempo”.

Touches

“I think they’ll want to in­volve their back three, be­cause they know that the more touches their back three get the more likely they are to break teams open, be­cause they’re tackle break­ers, they’re line break­ers . . . and Ni­colás Sánchez is a weapon there as well.”

In­deed, aside from be­ing their cre­ator-in-chief, Sánchez brings his own run­ning threat, as ev­i­denced by four tries in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship.

But with Jor­dan Lar­mour aboard for his full home de­but – which he has set up rather nicely – Ire­land have tasty out­side backs of their own.

The Bundee Aki-Rob­bie Hen­shaw mid­field gives Ire­land plenty of bal­last, al­beit they’ll need to be on the money de­fen­sively, and Johnny Sexton’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing and goal-kick­ing should give Ire­land an­other edge. But the bat­tle lines will be drawn up front, and it is here, not least at scrum time, where Ire­land have the edge, in tan­dem with their work at the break­down.

And for all the grief Ir­ish sides have suf­fered at the hands of the Pu­mas in World Cups, they have eight wins from eight games in Dublin.

They’ve also won nine in a row at the Aviva, and look well primed to make that 10.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: RYAN BYRNE/IN­PHO

Head coach Joe Sch­midt and out­half Jonathan Sexton share a light­hearted mo­ment dur­ing Ire­land’s cap­tain’s run at the Aviva Sta­dium yes­ter­day.

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