Ireland 29 Argentina 9: Ireland and Argentina games tend to be close, for which reason yesterday’s 20-point winning margin might at first glance look highly impressive.
It wasn’t. Ireland played well between the 10th and 40th minutes but other than that they were poor.
They made heavy work of this and their second half performance was worryingly flat. Had Felipe Contepomi been kicking as he can the outcome might have been very different.
World Cup hopefuls? The evidence of November suggests nothing of the sort. Having suffered defeats in two of the first three of their four 2010 Guinness Series Tests — indeed, losses in seven of their previous eight matches, five of them Tests — Ireland needed to show improvement.
That was the motivation in a bitterly cold, 20,000-short-of-capacity Aviva Stadium where play was only possible thanks to under-soil heating and a morning of hard graft by the ground staff.
Argentina made the better start and for the first 10 minutes Ireland were on the rack, particularly in the scrum of which the Pumas are masters. Not that it was all down to their ability, for Ireland made problems for themselves by messing up in the basics.
The first time they took the ball into contact they turned it over. The first line-out was lost, the first scrum saw them concede a free for engaging too early. Jonathan Sexton then put the ball out on the full from outside the 22. All silly errors.
But they escaped punishment, with Felipe Contepomi miscuing a straightforward drop goal and man of the match Jamie Heaslip then getting himself between the ageless Mario Ledesma and the line as the pressure intensified.
That Ireland came through without conceding points was hugely significant. And having done so, finally they escaped from under the cosh and began to play.
Once they did they made it count. For half-an-hour at any rate. Fortunately they did enough in that period to win the match for the second half was a non-event until the final minute.
Gordon D’Arcy’s first break after 11 minutes revealed the frailty of the visitors’ defence. Notice had been served. The back three then combined to earn a penalty with Geordan Murphy, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, who ran a great angle, having activated the alarm bell in Argentina’s defence.
Sexton’s kick was true and Ireland led 3-0. Six minutes later they notched the game’s first try, with Stephen Ferris getting his second touchdown in successive matches following an impressive build-up in which Bowe and Heaslip showed good hands and judgement. Sexton converted and having been on the ropes, Ireland found themselves 10-0 up at the end of the first quarter.
Contepomi squandered a chance to reduce the deficit when he fluffed a 23rd minute penalty, with Sexton — who has succeeded the Argentina captain as the new darling of the Leinster crowd — promptly taking the opportunity to show him how it’s done by nailing his third kick from three attempts six minutes later.
Even when the South Americans’ captain got it right two minutes later to make it 13-3, Sexton responded by adding three further points when Rodrigo Roncero was penalised for holding Peter Stringer.
Contepomi missed again in the 37th minute and Sexton rubbed his nose in the dirt once more by making it a perfect five from half first half kicks on the interval.
Contepomi’s misery in the city where he once was adored continued when, after 47 minutes, he wasted another kick, his third miss from four attempts.
But Ireland had become ragged, with Argentina making the running again. Their reward came when Contepomi at last got it right by landing a 58th minute goal from the 10-metre line which made it 19-6.
Some of Ireland’s bad habits reappeared, with the ball being kicked away cheaply several times as when, following fine play by D’Arcy and the looping Sexton, Murphy inexplicably hoofed it into touch on the full when Bowe would have been in the clear had the pass come. A magnificent Sexton penalty from half-way in the 66th minute maintained his perfect record — six from six — and finally gave Ireland their first points of a hugely worrying second half.
Just how worrying was underlined when the concession of another very cheap penalty saw Contepomi make it 22-9.
Right at the death Ireland put a little more space between themselves and the Pumas, for although replacement Keith Earls was denied by Welsh TMO Hugh Watkins whose controversial verdict was reminiscent of that against Ulster’s Adam D’Arcy in Treviso, D’Arcy’s chip and chase gave them a second score.
Replacement Ronan O’Gara converted and referee Mark Lawrence did everyone a favour by blowing for time.