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George Hook: The big is best theory is cut down to size by Ireland v Argentina result

By George Hook

History will have to wait. Ireland's World Cup journey ended at the quarter-final stage yesterday, as it has done so many times before in this tournament.

Argentina's performance was a reflection of the progress that has been made after four years' experience in the Rugby Championship and it was a nod to the idea that pace and width can trump power and strength on the rugby pitch.

Now, with no northern hemisphere teams left in the tournament, maybe the powers that be in this part of the world might wake up to the fact that rugby is still a running game. Yesterday, Argentina simply ran Ireland off the park.

The difference between the two teams was stark. Argentina were better handlers, stronger in contact and made fewer mistakes. Every collision went the Pumas' way.

Shorn of three of their most physical forwards and weakened by the brutality of the French confrontation, Ireland looked way off the pace of a World Cup quarter-final.

When referee Jerome Garces threw Ireland a lifeline by sending Ramiro Herrera to the sin-bin, Joe Schmidt's men had to press their advantage and close the gap.

An exchange of penalties followed before a moment of genius from Luke Fitzgerald gave Ireland a try that they scarcely deserved. The burst of pace and change of angle in full flight was sublime. Could that be the catalyst for a famous victory?

It needed to be. Ireland responded temporarily and managed to shut down the Argentina attack. Yet, even with more possession, Ireland's error count was too high. Dropped passes and poor execution of overly complex moves disrupted Ireland's momentum.

The Irish mindset was clear when Conor Murray kicked the ball away on 40 minutes.

Schmidt's men needed the sanctity of the dressing-room and despite being comprehensively out-played, Ireland were somehow within 10 points at the break.

Never was a first score of a half more important. Ireland weathered an Argentina blitz from the restart and managed to manoeuvre their way into the Pumas half.

Once again the fluttering feet of Fitzgerald unlocked the Argentina defence and Jordi Murphy had the patience to time his support run perfectly. It seemed a hammer-blow for Argentina as Ireland were within three points.

But instead of driving on to a famous victory, Ireland went backwards. The loss of key players was clearly a contributing factor to this defeat but the result might still have been the same as Ireland's weaknesses were exposed.

Schmidt has produced a wonderfully motivated organised team but playing a game that is out of date. Argentina's defensive set up, leaving the openside wing deep and wide, allowed acres of space out wide - which Ireland ignored.

The telling lesson of the Fitzgerald try and all of Argentina's successes was that the space is between the touch and 15-metre lines. A space that Schmidt saw as surplus to requirements.

The coach made two telling selection errors in a tournament where he got things mostly right. His preference for Keith Earls over Fitzgerald was inexplicable.

The Leinster player can do things that are beyond the Munster stalwart. Surely if nothing else, this game proved that Earls is not a centre?

Murray at scrum-half is also open to debate. He is simply unable to box-kick effectively. It has been an obvious fault since his first appearance for Ireland and yesterday only once was an Argentinian catcher put under real pressure. It was an open invitation to the Pumas to launch a counter-attack.

This team does not seek space. Rob Kearney reverted to type by being eminently secure under the high ball but ran back towards defenders rather than link with support.

The comparison between the respective back threes was odious.

Despite everything Ireland could have won as they clawed their way back to within three points. The Pumas had lost shape and were clearly worried, but sad to relate, Ian Madigan's kicking weakness was exposed. His restarts were far too long and he never drove his pack forward by seeking the corners.

Perhaps it is time for the young man to consider his future. His passing and running skills are top drawer, and in a more understanding rugby environment like Australia he would be an obvious No 12.

Ireland's players were willing, but ultimately they fell short on the skill levels needed to compete at the highest level.

And while this defeat may be tough to take, it might just signal the saviour of a sport that has always had its roots in speed and guile. If an Ireland defeat will banish the notion that big is best for the game of rugby union, then I, for one, am willing to make that sacrifice.

Belfast Telegraph


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