The Rugby World Cup semi-final invites are out and there is no Northern Hemisphere side at the party. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at how it all went so badly wrong for Ireland this weekend and sees how it could be potentially resolved (clue, it is not a quick fix).
The Ireland media coverage during the lead up to the Argentine match was on the euphoric French win (devalued considerably after last night), the injuries to key personnel and of course the citing of flanker Sean O’Brien for the open punch on Pascal Pape last weekend. There was frankly no real analysis on the Argentine side who have being the only team to seriously threaten New Zealand in this tournament thus far. The paper clips were there for the Argentina management and squad to read and nail on the dressing room wall and it was the perfect answer to the supposed Irish media sporting correspondents on what the priority story should have being this week.
To say that Argentina were up for this contest would be a massive understatement, the national anthem player reaction spoke volumes; this was a defining day in their rugby career and each player to a man were not going to let their team mates or nation down. Ireland on the other hand looked relaxed and composed during the national anthem but the mentality did not change in the key opening exchanges which defined the pattern of the contest.
Back Row Dominance
Argentina in the first quarter utterly dominated Ireland in all facets of play. With Ireland requiring two to three players to stop Argentina ball carriers, it was no surprise that Argentina took the front early. Dave Kearney left flat footed defensively which led to a 2 on 1 situation which Matias Moroni was never going to botch. Argentina realizing that the Ireland front five pack were struggling went for the throat and a second try came within the first ten minutes. Juan Imhoff stripping all Ireland players for pace to touchdown after a deft kick ahead. Rob Kearney’s view from full back in the opening half must have being the stuff of nightmares, team mates falling off tackles, back row annihilated in the breakdown exchanges forcing the Leinster full back to come into the line defensively leaving gaps for Argentina to exploit with an astute kicking game. Argentina won today because their pack was more cohesive and their back line had better footballers to spot gaps and identify Ireland weakness. Argentina targeted the outside channels throughout and the majority of tries came from these areas, disappointing for Ireland as this was an area that Ireland had tried to target due to the suspension of Marcelo Bosch.
Argentina’s early salvo did come at a price. Herrera was sin binned for a cynical late tackle on Keith Earls and another piece of naivety from the Pumas gave Ireland a lifeline in the contest with Luke Fitzgerald scoring superbly after being released down the wing by Robbie Henshaw. This was a rare occasion where Ireland enjoyed any success with the back line. The unit was stifled throughout due to impressive Argentine defensive line speed and chop tackles. The lack of back line then placed more pressure on the half-backs to deliver and unfortunately Murray and Madigan failed to hit the heights of last weekend. Murray was under pressure from the first whistle, a beaten pack meaning good quality clear out ball was non-existent. Madigan could not get his back line to fire and his penalty kicking was hit and miss. The penalty miss before half time was a dagger to Ireland hearts. Yes, Ireland did launch an excellent fightback to close the lead to three points but Argentina were soaking up the pressure and you always sensed that Los Puma would get opportunities to keep the score board ticking over thanks to their superior scrum.
The decisive game winning score capped Ireland’s day up perfectly. A messy Ireland scrum led to Conor Murray’s knocking on at the base of the scrum, the resultant scrum to Argentina was clinically executed by Argentina and a swift phrase of play had Tuculet over in the corner. It was game over, the gap was out to thirteen points and Ireland were like a boxer on the ropes waiting for that final punch to finish the contest and it came with an additional ten points in the final ten minutes. Argentina deservedly advance, their work rate, tactical execution and ability to punish opponent’s indiscipline with unerring penalty kicks from Sanchez caught the eye. Argentina are the tournament dark horse and have to be considered a dangerous threat for Australia next weekend.
Where now Ireland?
Ireland exit the tournament. The terms “brave”, “hard working” and “injuries” will be branded in the Ireland papers in the morning but Ireland were given a reality check in the performance levels required to get to the world’s elite top table. The French game last weekend lured everyone into a false sense of security, the squad depth that was lauded prior to this tournament could not cope with losses to several key players today and a defensive tight system (hallmarks of Ireland since Schmidt has taken over) was cut to pieces by Argentina, exploiting passive defensive to make numerous gain line yards and space around the Ireland fringes. The Ireland injuries were massive but even if all the players were available for selection, I doubt if Ireland would have won. Ireland’s skill set would have still being inferior to Argentina’s and the penalty kicking options of Los Puma would have usurped anything that Sexton or Madigan could offer. A massive learning curve day for Ireland players, fans and management.
The Ireland national rugby team are at a defining cross-roads. What changes are required to the IRFU system to elevate the national team from the mediocrity of quarter final exits? Argentina’s ability to use their intelligence to identify Ireland defensive gaps was quite telling today. Ireland’s composure was thrown out of the window as gym strength was used primarily to attempt to smash holes in Argentina’s defense. No Ireland player today was able to play heads up rugby, look at options with any clarity to launch decisive attacks. Maybe Luke Fitzgerald was the only guy to do so but it was a damning indictment of the rest of the team today. No genuine quick fix to the problem.
The playing staff are honest as the day is long but the development of players who can execute the basic fundamentals of the game with world class frequency is now required. The schools game is built on strength than skill, school players are sacrificing basic skills for gym strength. IRFU policies on how to improve the skill standards across all grades is now paramount. The amount of injuries sustained by Ireland in this tournament indicates that Ireland’s game plan is built on physicality, this needs to change. The warning signs were provided during the pre-season defeats to Wales and England but today was the defining statement in how much Ireland have to improve to even compete with the likes of Argentina. The gap between NH and SH teams has widened. This will be a long term strategic decision but one that has to be delivered for Ireland to rid their reputation of bottlers in Rugby World Cup quarter-final phrase.