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Rugby World Cup: Passionate Pumas fire out a note of caution to Irish

By Neil Francis

Published 24/09/2015

National pride: Argentina, Ireland’s likely opponents should both make the quarters, have been singing loud and proud
National pride: Argentina, Ireland’s likely opponents should both make the quarters, have been singing loud and proud

There are many things that distinguish rugby union from association football; some are so nuanced they are practically impossible to detect. If ever you had a crisis of certainty and you were looking to differentiate, maybe look at something that happens before the whistle even blows.

In rugby union, the anthems set us apart from all other international team sports. We sing our anthems. It reinforces who we are and for the players gives rise to what will happen in the next few minutes.

Bad news then that Argentina were at it again at this World Cup. They mean business.

In France in 2007, one of the highlights was watching the Pumas sing their national anthem on their way to the semi-finals and eventual third place. In every match, there was a sense of occasion whenever 'Himno Nacional Argentino' was being sung.

It was compelling to see grown men unable to contain themselves emotionally as they observe who they are in front of who they belong to.

In 2007, almost half the team were in tears before the song started; because their arms were bound with their team-mates in a line, they couldn't conceal the moisture in their eyes. As the song began, those who were able to belted it out.

It was as rousing as it was emotionally uplifting. Unchained pride in their nation. Last Sunday, the fervour and emotional rawness displayed on the line during the national anthem for Argentina and backed up by a display of serious intent told you one thing: if Ireland are to challenge in this Cup, they will have to play out of their skins to do it.

There will be no easy games after the third match and Ireland will have to dog it out with gritty, competitive sides when the live ammunition starts flying around.

I have a feeling we will be meeting the Pumas - a team we don't like playing against.

Argentina have struggled in the Rugby Championship since being admitted to the old Tri-Nations in 2012. But let's remind ourselves that the term 'struggle' is a relative term.

Yes, it is true that they have struggled to win games. Sometimes, though, the 'struggle' is just to get better and unquestionably they have done that. If you were an ambitious coach, where would you rather be? Picking off easy wins against Italy and Scotland, or trying out against the big boys?

Argentina's skill levels were really good. Everything about their game-plan and competitive demeanour tells you that they will be horribly competitive and difficult opponents for ourselves or France.

In 2006, Juan Martin Hernandez was the best player in the world. In 2007, he illuminated the World Cup. In 2011, he did not really feature mainly because of injury, but last Sunday against New Zealand, the old maestro was back.

He is probably the best passer in the competition. His kicking was sumptuous and his tackling pointed, aggressive.

I am certain that if Joe Schmidt had a centre of his quality he would have fewer sleepless nights about his midfield combination.

The All Blacks performance was an exercise in functionality. They got the job done but were pushed a lot harder than they would have bargained for.

One little vignette about this quality came to light just before half-time. Sonny Bill Williams had been introduced for a strangely ineffective Ma'a Nonu and approaching half-time got one of those 'how did he just do that?' offloads away to Nehe Milner-Skudder.

At that stage the winger had been playing well and as the ball came out of the feed it stayed in motion for a millisecond - a metre from the line - what is there to think about? Catch and score!

Milner-Skudder inexplicably took his eye off the ball as he went over the line and dropped it. A certain score missed.

In New Zealand, they hang wingers from the highest gallows for those sort of unpardonable crimes. Minutes later after another error, Milner-Skudder was bench jockey number two. He will play tonight but that's the Thursday team.

Anything New Zealand can do, Joe can do. Tommy Bowe will most likely get a chance on Sunday but he is going to have to score the same number of tries as tackles he missed in Twickenham - no charity, no pity at this level.

Such was the carnival atmosphere in the early games this week that it does seem a shame to just send the weaker nations home when their involvement in the pool stages ends.

I think it would be hugely beneficial for the competition if the third and fourth-placed teams in the pool stages had a plate competition out of the eight teams left - quarters, semis and final.

And also a bowl competition for the weakest teams - Uruguay, Namibia, Canada, South Africa...

Belfast Telegraph

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