Ireland 20-43 Argentina: Outclassed Irish exit Rugby World Cup with a whimper
A World Cup that held such promise for Ireland ended in all too familiar fashion as they fell to Argentina in the quarter-finals here at the Millennium Stadium yesterday.
It was a sixth loss at this stage of the competition and, after fighting back from an early 17-0 deficit, they were torn apart in the final quarter with the Pumas running in two late tries.
The wait for a first semi-final goes on.
It was a wholly deserved victory for Daniel Hourcade's side, their ranging skillsets on show from numbers one through 15 were superior to their opposition, while Joe Schmidt must now ponder why his back-to-back Six Nations winners joined the litany of Irish teams who have tasted defeat in the last-eight.
Of course, when the head coach first considered the challenge of taking Ireland into uncharted territory, he would have been banking on utilising a far more experienced core than the one he was forced to field yesterday.
Missing a third of his projected pre-tournament starting XV, the loss of Jared Payne, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and latterly Jonathan Sexton robbed the men in green of 252 caps worth of experience and matters were not helped when another stalwart, Tommy Bowe, departed the scene after just 12 minutes with an injury that will surely be a concern at the Kingspan.
Ireland will be offering no excuses, however, and they were a clear second best.
Argentina entered the game on the crest of a wave. Having given champions New Zealand a fright in the opening round of fixtures, they then blew past Tonga, Georgia and Namibia.
Ireland, though, boasted the joint best defence, with Australia the only other side who managed to ship just 35 points in four fixtures. It didn't show yesterday, however, as they conceded the most points in a game of the Schmidt era.
Italy had tested them two weeks ago with their attempts to move wide at pace and it was a tactic repeated by Argentina to devastating effect.
There were just three minutes on the clock when Ian Madigan, who had won an even earlier aerial duel, lost a battle in the sky with Joaquin Tuculet and when the ball was recycled, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe quickly gathered a loose delivery and produced a fabulous miss pass.
Argentina worked the overlap and centre Matias Moroni was over in the corner.
Nicolas Sanchez's conversion sneaked inside the right-hand upright for a 7-0 lead.
If Argentina's ability to ship the ball across the field at breathtaking speed is a relatively new-found trick, they displayed their traditional strengths after 10 minutes.
Heaslip had done well to rip the ball from Pablo Matera but the subsequent scrum was dismantled. The penalty went to the touchline and with the ball moved from left to right, a chip from Santiago Cordero was gathered and touched down by Juan Imhoff.
Moments later, the recent injury misfortune continued when Bowe was caught in a ruck and his knee gave way.
The wing signalled immediately that he was in trouble and Ireland gave away another kickable penalty as they defended with 14 men.
Ulster's two-time Lion departed the scene on a stretcher as Sanchez kicked his side into a 17-point advantage.
The biggest deficit overturned in World Cup history is the 15 that Romania fought back from against Canada in the pool stages and if Ireland were to advance they would now have to make history on two fronts.
There were little indication that such a feat was on the cards as Schmidt's side seemed in a disarray not seen since the four-try defeat to Australia in the Kiwi coach's first autumn.
Ramiro Herrera offered a lifeline when yellow carded for a no-arms tackle on Keith Earls but, as Cian Healy lost a contact lens, Ireland were in danger of losing touch.
Madigan thought he had their first try of the day but his tap and go was too quick for referee Jerome Garces' liking. The Leinsterman settled for a penalty and at least they were on the board.
Argentina struck right back, the accurate boot of Sanchez again a source of three points when Ulsterman Chris Henry was caught coming in at the side.
Ireland ensured they ended the 10-minute period of numerical advantage in a better position than they began when Luke Fitzgerald, on for the stricken Bowe, burst through and touched down.
Trailing by 10 at the turn, the next score was set to decide whether the next 40 minutes were a contest or procession and it seemed set to go to Argentina until Henry produced a timely turnover in his own 22.
When Ireland scored again, the pendulum seemed to be swinging very much in their favour.
A Robbie Henshaw burst gained ground and Fitzgerald was again clear to hand the ball off for Jordi Murphy to score.
When Ireland won a penalty at the next scrum, the Millennium Stadium erupted.
The fans thought they knew what was coming even if their coach still donned a decidedly more stressed expression.
A trading of penalties maintained the margin and, on the hour mark, a Madigan attempt off the tee that would have brought parity drifted off line.
Ireland would never get so close again.
A high tackle from Devin Toner gave an opportunity for a six-point lead that Sanchez, given his imperious form, was never likely to pass up and a strong finish from Tuculet, awarded after TMO consultation, provided the kiss of death.
When Imhoff, another who was superb on the day, added a fourth, the coming force of Southern Hemisphere rugby had already started to plan for the semi-finals.
Argentina will meet Australia in Twickenham next Sunday. Ireland, meanwhile, will wonder what might have been had fate been kinder.
IRELAND: R Kearney, T Bowe, K Earls, R Henshaw, D Kearney; I Madigan, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; I Henderson, D Toner; J Murphy, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Replacements: R Strauss (for Best, 65), J McGrath (for Healy, 50), N White (for Ross, 50), D Ryan (for Toner, 70), R Ruddock (for Murphy, 69), E Reddan (for Murray, 69), P Jackson, L Fitzgerald (for Bowe, 12).
ARGENTINA: J Tuculet, S Cordero, M Moroni, JM Hernandez, J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo; M Ayerza, A Creevy, R Herrera; G Petti, T Lavanini; P Matera, JM Fernandez Lobbe, L Senatore.
Replacements: J Montoya (for Creevy, 55), L Noguera (for Ayerza, 67), JP Orlandi, M Alemanno (for Petti, 59), F Isa, T Cubelli (for Landajo, 52), J De La Fuente (for Moroni, 67), LG Amorosino.
Star man: Nicolas Sanchez pulled the strings for an Argentina backline that Ireland just didn't cope with. Fantastic off the tee as well.
Match Rating: 7/10