The countdown to a weekend of some importance to Irish rugby has begun. On Saturday afternoon at the Aviva Stadium (2pm), they face Argentina knowing that defeat could damage their 2015 World Cup prospects.
With the London draw for the group stages now less than two weeks away, recent results provide evidence of a team on the slide; Ireland have lost each of their past five Tests.
But if the Irish think they have problems, Wales makes their situation look positively rosy. Indeed, the Welsh may just have come to Ireland’s rescue in terms of their survival in tier two for the December 3 draw for World Cup groups.
To date this month Wales have lost 26-12 to Argentina and 26-19 to Samoa. As a result, last season’s Grand Slam winners have slipped from sixth to eight in the rankings, pushing Ireland and Argentina up to seventh and sixth respectively.
That means Kidney’s side will not go into Saturday’s showdown with Los Pumas occupying the precarious eighth rung of the IRB rankings ladder. Instead, Wales will, and with their match this Saturday being against the All Blacks — the World Cup holders and the top-ranked side on the planet — the odds against the hosts are stacked high.
But while that may have taken some of the heat off new Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip (pictured) and his men, nevertheless a win for the hosts in Dublin is essential. A sixth successive loss would be a massive blow in terms of morale and status, to say nothing of the damage it could do to coach Declan Kidney’s hopes of a renewal of his contract which expires at the end of the season.
That won’t matter to Argentina. Now part of the southern hemisphere’s Four Nations’ Championship, they are on their way up and, following their triumph in Cardiff, claiming the scalp of a second Home Countries side in the space of a fortnight would be quite a fillip, particularly with them having run the French so close at the weekend.
France — now ranked fourth in the world behind Australia, South Africa and New Zealand — blew the Wallabies out of the water en route to a 33-6 rout. So the fact that Argentina restricted Les Bleus to 39-22 win in Lille on Saturday says plenty about the threat they pose. Indeed, they led 13-3 lead early on and it was only on the closing stages that the French finally pulled clear of them.
Irish veteran Ronan O’Gara admitted that the guests’ stock has risen significantly as a result of their Four Nations’ involvement.
The Munster out-half, who is expected to be on the bench as understudy to Leinster’s Jonny Sexton come Saturday afternoon, said: “Just the very fact that they were playing Test rugby against some of the best teams in the world three weeks ago will have brought them on a ton — and they were very impressive during the championship.”
But, he had a suggestion as to how Argentina might be de-railed.
“What we have to do is set the pace in this game,” O’Gara advised. “With every game of rugby there is one team who sets the pace and one who is chasing.
“We set the pace for 40 minutes against South Africa. For the first half I thought we were really good, played with great intensity, just did the simple things well and were pretty much in control of the game.
“But in the second half we stopped doing what had been yielding dividends and South Africa came back at us and strangled us a little.”
Admitting that the November 10 defeat at the Aviva Stadium had been a blow to morale, O’Gara said: “From everyone’s point of view it’s hugely disappointing to lose when you were 12-3 up at home.
“It’s very rare in the last 10 years that we have squandered those leads. It’s hard to give a reason for what happened. Everyone will be coming at it from a different angle.
“We will talk about it because it’s important to air what you’re feeling, but that will be done in-camp.”
He believes that the onus now is on the younger generation of players to take ownership of the Ireland team.
“There are a lot of new faces coming through now and there’s not that familiarity there was a couple of years ago because it’s a hugely changed team,” he added.
“That’s the natural evolution of the thing and it takes time for the bond between players to grow.
“But they have to grasp this opportunity now or risk seeing it pass them by.”