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Ireland v Argentina: Men in green ready to embrace history at Rugby World Cup

It is a fact that sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of everyone involved in Irish rugby. Despite all the achievements of the last 16 years since Ulster won the 1999 European Cup, Ireland have never made a mark at the World Cup.

All the achievements, the Grand Slam, the Six Nations, one-off wins over southern hemisphere opponents, Triple Crowns, European titles and Lions tourists, are undermined by the country's finest failing to deliver at this stage.

That 1991 was the closest they have come is a damning indictment of subsequent efforts. Robbie Henshaw wasn't even born when Gordon Hamilton's try appeared to have beaten the Wallabies on that unforgettable day at Lansdowne Road.

Never have Ireland been better prepared to go one step beyond, yet injury has checked their stride at the last hurdle.

With Paul O'Connell in the stands and Brian O'Driscoll in the ITV studio, they lack the star names of the past three World Cups but this team is led by a mastermind in Joe Schmidt who, even without four of the team that he would have started had he had everyone available, can figure out a way to beat the Pumas.

Argentina stand in their way; a team on the up with a core of experienced players playing the game a different way alongside some talented young colts who can strike from anywhere.

There are familiar faces in their number. Names like Hernandez, Fernandez Lobbe, Ayerza and Creevy remind us of World Cups past. Nobody haunts Irish World Cup dreams like Argentina.

Lens, Adelaide, the Parc des Princes; those are the backdrops for games that defined entire campaigns and the South Americans have held the edge.

Earlier in the week, Juan Martin Hernandez had a twinkle in his eyes as he labelled the game the World Cup's 'el clasico'. As the old cliché goes, form will count for little.

It's probably just as well, because it's hard to get a read on where these teams are at given their contrasting approaches.

Ireland are undoubtedly battle-hardened after two bruising encounters with Latin opposition that have taken their toll.

They take the field without their captain O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien, while doubts over Johnny Sexton will persist until he kicks the game off.

"We don't take too many risks with injured players," Schmidt said after including Sexton in his team yesterday. "We have got a great medical group and Johnny is ready to go. There is always a risk in anything you do, just as there is in making selections and implementing our strategy. You accept those risks in terms of trying to get a result.

"Johnny kicked a bit yesterday and he kicked a bit today. He hasn't done as much as he would have, but that wouldn't be sensible either. But, as I say, we have allowed him to build into the week so that by the end of the week, he could be ready to go."

The reality is that Ireland need their out-half to come through today's captain's run, tomorrow's warm-up and perform without doubt in his mind.

Ian Madigan did a capable job of covering last weekend, but managing a game from minute one to 80 is a different challenge, particularly in O'Connell's absence.

Schmidt has gone for continuity where he can. The back five of the scrum has changed utterly from week to week with Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry coming into the back-row and Iain Henderson replacing the skipper, so he has left every other line of the team unchanged.

Keith Earls and Henshaw renew their promising partnership outside Sexton and Conor Murray who may have more of a kicking role given his half-back partner's issues, while the back three remains intact.

Up front, Cian Healy will hope for a far better game after keeping the No 1 jersey over the unlucky Jack McGrath, while Rory Best has a leadership role to play alongside his normal duties. Argentina have promised to target the scrum.

They will go after Ireland's set-piece, while their focus all week has been on disrupting and slowing down green ball where they can.

Ireland survive on quick ball and if they can dominate the ruck they will win the game. The combination of Murphy, Henry and Jamie Heaslip might lack ball-carrying oomph, but what it does bring is a trio of hard-working groundhogs with plenty of aerobic capacity. Those three will get to a lot of rucks.

Henderson and Healy will be asked to fill the vacancy left by O'Brien's absence with ball in hand and take the game to Argentina, while Henshaw and Earls will be asked to get over the gainline.

Defence will be a form of attack, with Argentina's offloading game ripe for the picking if Ireland can flood the channels. However, if the offloads come off and the Pumas get continuity of possession then Ireland could be in trouble.

Unlike the past Argentina sides, this is one that loves to move the ball and play with freedom. Three seasons in the Rugby Championship has opened them up to the biggest tests rugby offers on a regular basis and the evidence is that they are beginning to cope.

Still, for all they played well against New Zealand in their opening game, the All Blacks' sloppy play let them off the hook on several occasions and if Ireland can continue to execute their game-plan with the accuracy and intensity they showed against France then they should be in for a good day.

The problem may be hitting that pitch.

Last week, they were inspired by a visit from five Irish sporting greats before both football teams from either side of the border delivered historic results and had been building towards that performance for months.

This week, the focus outside the camp has been on disciplinary committees, injured players, paying tribute to a retiring legend and almost everything else outside of the match itself.

A 1.0 kick-off might suck some of the life out of the atmosphere in Cardiff even with the large Irish contingent again, while the reality of turning around such tired bodies in a week may take its toll.

Schmidt is wary, but ultimately retains a quiet belief that his team can make history.

"I'd never exude confidence, but you've got to be quietly confident," the Kiwi said.


"You go out there with a strategy which is not too different from the strategy you started against Canada with. We tried to keep things very low profile leading into the World Cup.

"Since then we have tried to build each match. That doesn't always work - Italy, for us, was a very tough day at the office. They made it very difficult for us.

"There are a number of similarities in the way Italy and Argentina tend to play. They'd be very much 'get in your face', they tend to challenge you at the breakdown and, on top of that, Argentina have the luxury of some world-class finishers.

"Across the board, they have got a fair bit more armoury than Italy had and we struggled past Italy with a pretty full team so we now know we have to go another step. Have we got that in us? We'll find out on Sunday."

The referee remains the same from that day against the Italians and Schmidt will hope that his players can learn from Jerome Garces' performance that day as they look to reduce their penalty count into single figures again while forcing Argentina into ill-discipline through pressure.

It's knockout rugby and the reality that, on Monday, one of these teams will return home should focus minds. It is a different type of pressure and Jamie Heaslip and Ireland's leadership corps will need their heads clear of doubt when they're making decisions.

It would help if Sexton was at full flight. If he is, history beckons. Verdict: Ireland

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Irish Independent

Irish Independent


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