I'm hardly what you'd call an expert on GAA but still I know enough to be able to say I saw similarities between Dublin's win over Laois on Sunday and Ireland's win in this First Test in Resistencia.
In both matches it was easy to tell which team were champions and which were the underdogs, but although the favourites definitely didn't have everything their own way and even trailed at one point, the result was never really in doubt.
For me, the screengrab above captures everything we as Ireland fans could have drawn from this match.
On the right, young Iain Henderson, earning his 11th cap and having his first full 80 minutes in green as a second row. Beside him, the man who was almost poetically making his 100th appearance on a ground known as Estadio Centanario*. The considerable abilities of both men together with their varying levels of experience go to show that despite the departure of such an iconic figure as BOD, both our immediate and long term futures are indeed in capable hands.
Plus, with all that has been said about the current Irish brains trust it doesn't hurt to mention that neither of the above plays for Leinster ;-)
Having said that, right from the kickoff it was clear to anyone who has followed teams coached by Joe Schmidt and quarterbacked by Jonny Sexton that they had a huge influence on Ireland's attacking mindset, and the graphic after 5 minutes of play said it all...Argentina had already made 28 tackles, Ireland a big fat zero.
And the set plays throughout the first half were themselves impressive – you had your traditional front foot phase ball, some variance in runs from the two Ulster centres Marshall and Cave, a neat grubber into the corner by Felix Jones and the one I like the most, the little dink over the blitzing defence by Sexton, something I'd love to see keeping the Welsh honest in Cardiff next March.
Yet for all the attacking enterprise, there was one teeny tiny thing missing from the boys in green for the first half an hour – a try, and it will have to be a concern for the coaching staff that it was the home side who were first to cross the whitewash.
Despite my Leinster allegiance I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a big fan of both Luke Marshall and Darren Cave and I am fully aware of what they can do both individually and as a pairing. And as I said earlier, they played a big role in Ireland's dominance from the kick-off.
Still though, when the Argentine number 8 Benjamin Macome (who was credited with 21 tackles in 70 minutes) saw yellow for taking Andrew Trimble out in the air, Ireland had their best chance to finally get over the Pumas’ line, and it was a fumble by Cave on a relatively straight-forward move that halted our progress. And not long after that, the ball was being touched down back at the other end of the pitch.
Now there were two moments of brilliance in that Argentine score – first an acrobatic take in the air by full-back Joaquin Tuculet and ultimately a finish from Manuel Montero that had both power and precision but sandwiched in between those YouTube moments was one where Marshall was laid out flat by one of the widest sidesteps I have ever seen on a rugby pitch by out-half Nicolas Sanchez. For a split second the two players faced each other, but then the distance between Sanchez planting his left foot and his actually evading the outstretched hand of Marshall the other way could have been as much as six feet.
Trust me...I'm not dissing the Marshall/Cave axis at all...they did plenty, especially Cave, to show they totally belong in the Ireland set-up, it's just those two errors came at a key stage of the match and deserve to be highlighted.
But thankfully for Ireland the tendency of Joe Schmidt-led teams to respond directly after being scored upon is alive and well, and after all the moves forged on the whiteboard, ironically it was the good “old-fashioned” lineout/maul combo which made the Argentine lead extremely short-lived. The only downside of the well-worked Chris Henry try was that it reminded us just how much a shame it will be that John Plumtree has cut his Ireland stint so short.
So we went in at halftime with a one-point lead, and it wasn't long after the break when a set move actually paid off. Debutante Robbie Diack took one of his many lineout catches on the day before Jordi Murphy powered & rolled his way into the Puma 22. Then it was up to the backs and it was great to see Marshall so tuned in to the Sexton wraparound and although the outhalf had men outside him it was his sheer strength which got him over.
Full credit to the Argentine side...all the pre-match buildup made it sound like they were rank amateurs but we have to remember they have had two years of Rugby Championship action now so we're not the only ones keen to nurture a sense of squad depth and it's clear they do have a decent talent pool across the park, particularly in this match in their back three.
After the Sexton try although I don't have the exact stats I'd say Ireland had to make more tackles in the next 10-12 minutes than they did in the entire first half. Thankfully for us, after that earlier blip our defence was staying strong and for all the Argentine endeavour, our scrambling was just too resilient and we kept pushing them back until eventually Andrew Trimble pulled off one of those interception tries he does so often for Ulster and with that the margin was one of 13 points that never really looked in trouble.
The final quarter kind of fizzled out...I'm sure the perfectionist that is Joe Schmidt will have a thing or two to say about the defending for Argentina's consolation try in the 78th minute but the lead had been stretched to 19 at that stage and there's no doubting his biggest concern will be the injury to Sexton which forced him off on 63 minutes. Hopefully he'll be ok but it certainly didn't look good as he was going off.
So that's pretty much how the scoring went, time to look at a few individuals who were out to impress.
In my preview I said I was looking for a “Schmidt-like” display from Simon Zebo...did I find it? Well there's no doubting he did some good things, most notably the offload in the tackle which nearly put his number 13 over in the corner which would have been fitting payback for his try in Cardiff back in 2012. Plus I have to say he played a part in stopping what looked like a certain Argentine try in a sequence which reminded me of the famous French forward pass last March.
Still though...I have to say I didn't see enough from him to warrant moving him up Joe Schmidt's pecking order – and that is best borne out by the time he took a crossfield kick and kept his head facing forward with absolutely no regard for an offload to keep the move going...for the umpteenth time I'll say that this isn't always a bad thing, but it is when you are playing for this particular coach.
Robbie Diack was heavily involved on his debut and possibly had his hands on the ball more often than Conor Murray. I'll admit I wasn't his biggest fan going into the match with a botched try in last year's Pro12 final plus a tendency to drive into scrums foremost in my memory...still though, he certainly showed that he is willing to roll up his sleeves for this Ireland squad and definitely deserves another shot, though he did ignore a decent overlap at one point in the first half.
With Diack & Henry so busy it meant for a relatively quiet shift for Jordi Murphy bar being heavily involved in the Sexton try, and to be fair although we were always on top in the scrums, when it came to the breakdown the Argentine back row were competitive so there weren't a whole lot of opportunities for him.
I was glad to see Kieran Marmion get a game, and I'm wondering if Joe would be tempted to start him in the second test. We can take it to the bank that Murray/Sexton is the halfback pairing of choice for RWC2015 but when it comes to the 21 jumper the one teeny blemish in Conor's game, ie taking a fraction longer than necessary to release front-foot ball, makes it vital that his replacement can provide at least that and let's face it, although Reddan is off a good season he's not getting any younger.
And finally there is Rodney Ah You. Being “Irish qualified” myself, I'm afraid to talk down players like himself and Diack and though I'd have my doubts overall about the 3-year qualification thing, once other countries are availing of it I reckon we'd be mad not to.
It's just that on this occasion I can't get the vision of Ah You just standing there over the try line as Argentina got their consolation try at the end. He had only been on the park 13 minutes yet had the demeanour of someone who had been toiling for the full 78. I've never attended a Joe Schmidt DVD session but I have a feeling that is something that could well stand out like a sore thumb; not something you want on your debut.
But hey...nitpicking aside this was always a comfortable victory against a side that despite not being the Pumas’ finest, definitely had the ability to make the margin tighter so we did well to keep them at arm's length. You can be sure the coaching staff will be keen to end their first season in charge on a high so the stage will be set for a better performance next week...hopefully the injury count won't be so bad.
Overall the significance of Paulie reaching his century and leading us to a maiden victory on Argentine soil cannot be overstated. For all the talk of others retiring we cannot forget what an immense legend we still have in our midst and although I haven't mentioned his performance in this match writeup I really don't need to. JLP
* = Technically “Centenario” translates to “centennial” and I know Paulie hasn’t been around for 100 years but hopefully pedants will give me a break for the reference! ;-)
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