Ireland pass the tests but without honours
Understrength Argentina give tourists plenty to ponder despite series victory
Ireland flew out of Buenos Aires yesterday not sure what to make of it all. The coaching staff and players boarded long-haul flights with a first Test series win over Argentina in the bag, but with a lingering doubt about the whole experience in their heads.
It is possibly just as well Joe Schmidt had the furthest to go as the coach has much to drink in.
As he made his way to Auckland to join up with the U-20s ahead of the final game of the Junior World Cup, the Ireland coach would have been running through the past 14 days he has spent with his squad, forensically assessing the 29 players he used and considering his first season as coach.
The 2013/14 season will be filed under success, with the lingering regret around those final moments on November 24 when the All Blacks deprived Ireland of history.
Paris helped ease that pain and re-emphasised the idea that the team are moving in the right direction under their new coach.
Two unconvincing wins over an understrength but impressive Pumas side will register little space in the history books and it may not be until the World Cup that we know whether this two-week jaunt was beneficial.
After the first Test, Paul O'Connell cast a lingering look at England's exploits in New Zealand and wondered aloud were they getting more from the exercise.
However, a Wales team missing a host of front-liners struggling in Durban may have tempered his view.
All of Ireland's most important players will report for pre-season training without injury next September and that's not to be sniffed at 12 months out from a World Cup. Still, there is concern that momentum was lost in Argentina.
"It's very frustrating and disappointing because one of the things we want to do is to keep progressing," O'Connell said.
"You can only play what's in front of you. We can't all go down to New Zealand or Australia and play them. This was our tour, we had to make the most of it.
"You know, it probably wasn't the worst tour considering a few front-liners were missing, it was the first tour without Drico.
"I think, performance-wise and results-wise it was disappointing. But a lot of guys have gotten on the bike with regard to how Joe does things and from that point of view it's good."
Argentina's performance was outstanding considering the list of names they were missing, but, like in the first Test, they were helped by Ireland's sloppiness. Schmidt could be thankful for the outstanding performance of the dynamic Rhys Ruddock, who announced himself as a real rival to Peter O'Mahony, while Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney and Eoin Reddan were excellent. Iain Henderson and Jack McGrath came off the bench to good effect.
The tourists showed some character to get themselves out of the hole they had dug themselves, with Reddan and Zebo combining for the first try and Ian Madigan reprising his super-sub role to seal it, with Argentina pulling a try back at the death.
The first half had followed a familiar pattern, with Johnny Sexton guiding Ireland into a six-point lead, only for Argentina to get a man sin-binned and score a try while down to 14 men – just as happened a week previous.
This time Ireland were also down a man after Andrew Trimble took Manuel Montero out without the ball as Nicolas Sanchez narrowed the gap with a penalty, before O'Connell opted for a scrum under the posts when Sexton had the chance to restore the six-point lead and it resulted in a 10-point swing.
Although Ireland got the nudge-on first time around and forced another penalty, Argentina summoned one last effort. From the resultant scrum on his own five-metre line, Martin Landajo spotted a gap and raced into Irish territory. The visitors scrambled, but Joaquin Tuculet stepped past Chris Henry to score.
Although Sexton pulled a penalty back to make it 10-9 at the break, Ireland had good reason to be nervous. However the excellent Reddan calmed the nerves with a clever inside pass to put Zebo over, before Madigan finished it off.
There was still time for Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino to give some respectability to the scoreline, but Ireland had claimed the series.
By that stage the coach had introduced three new debutants, even if their caps came far too late – or in Rob Herring's case in the wrong position – to have any chance of impressing.
"The players have learned; they have learned about what the level is," said Schmidt.
"If that is the outcome of what was a disappointing performance in patches then I'd be pretty happy," Schmidt added.
IRELAND: R Kearney; A Trimble, F McFadden, D Cave (N Reid 73), S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 65), E Reddan (K Marmion 77); D Kilcoyne (J McGrath 57), R Best, M Ross (J Cronin 73); D Toner (I Henderson h-t), P O'Connell (capt); R Ruddock (R Herring 77), C Henry (J Murphy 63), J Heaslip.