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Ireland's World Cup woe against Argentina fresh in Schmidt's memory


By Ruaidhri O'Connor

On the Thursday before Ireland's World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in 2015, you couldn't move in Cardiff without meeting a member of the Irish squad or management.

It was week five of living in each others' pockets and, having been based at Celtic Manor ahead of the French pool game, they'd transferred into a city centre hotel.

The players were relaxed enough as they enjoyed coffees, met family and passed a rare moment of free time in non-branded clothing.

Late in the afternoon, I crossed paths with Joe Schmidt on the street behind the Millennium Stadium.

"Enjoy the day off," I said as he passed. "What day off?!" he replied as he hurried back to the video analysis room.

And 72 hours later, the Ireland head coach cut an ashen-faced figure beneath the stands as he tried to explain what had gone wrong.

Two years of work undone in 80 confusing minutes as the then Six Nations champions were run ragged by the Pumas.

It had been the roughest week of his coaching career, with injuries, retirements, suspensions and the late withdrawal of Johnny Sexton all playing their part in a tumultuous build-up that was reflected in the worst performance by his Ireland team in their biggest game. It hurt him badly.

If you want an example of the turnover the Irish squad has gone through in the past two years since the ignominious exit from the 2015 World Cup, consider that just nine of the 23 from the defeat to Argentina are likely to be involved this weekend.

Schmidt, however, is still present, and you'd have to wonder at the emotions he is experiencing as he runs through the footage of that harrowing afternoon beneath the roof.

Outwardly, this is just another game for the Ireland coach who is preparing his team in the same way as he always does.

Inwardly, he wouldn't be human if he wasn't affected by the memory.

Although the players took a break between leaving the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and regathering in Kildare on Sunday evening, Schmidt would have been busy picking apart the Fiji game before dusting off the tape from Cardiff.

Sitting alone in a darkened room, he will have endured the sight of those blue and white behemoths winning collisions before sweeping the ball wide to their speedy backs who tore Ireland asunder.

Then came the rally, before the ultimate fall and the indignity of the late tries that added the cherry for the Pumas.

He doesn't need to watch it back. That game is imprinted on a mind more than capable of recalling individual moments from games in the past while also containing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.

Had his team beaten Argentina and reached a semi-final against the Wallabies, it is doubtful that Schmidt would still be in Ireland at all.

A sense of unfinished business compelled him to stay and give the big show another crack and so he steers the ship towards Japan.

That tournament is edging closer, and Saturday's game brings another window to a close. There are four to go until the World Cup warm-ups begin in July 2019.

In 2017, beating the Pumas in their current state doesn't look like much of an achievement.

Last week's win over Italy was Daniel Hourcade's team's eighth in 26 matches since the World Cup and the list of scalps is less than impressive.

France and the Springboks have been beaten at home, and they've taken out Italy home and away while also accounting for Georgia, Chile, Uruguay and Japan.

Their Super Rugby side have struggled to make an impact since being added to the competition and they've changed rules to broaden the coach's selection options for 2019.

And they arrive in Dublin as perhaps the most travelled team in world sport, a team full of players who must barely know where they are given the amount of time they spend moving from continent to continent to play games of rugby.

Their results have seen them slip below Fiji to the edge of the top 10 in the world, but it was clear from Schmidt's team selection which game he considered the bigger one.

He rested 13 players to face the Islanders in an attempt to broaden his squad and take a look at some fresh talent.

He also wanted his front-liners fresh for the revenge mission.

So, the big guns will roll back into the Aviva on Saturday having, by and large, had a week to recuperate from their record win over South Africa.

The second-string's defeat of Fiji brought back some memories of the 2015 loss to the Pumas.

Lost collisions and being exposed on the edge were both there for all to see.

Depth was the issue Schmidt kept coming back to after that quarter-final loss as his squad struggled to cope with the five big names ruled out.

He has been building a squad ever since, while his reaction to Ireland being beaten in the wide channels after being bullied up front was to hire line-speed specialist Andy Farrell.

When Ireland play well, their line-speed and ruck work are at the heart of it. Displaying that against an aggressive Argentina side will be key.

Belfast Telegraph

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