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Rugby World Cup Ireland v Argentina: Aching Irish bodies must be ready for big physical test

By George Hook

Ireland are on the verge of history as they bid to make the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup for the first time. But the euphoria that greeted last Sunday's win against France will count for nothing if they lose to Argentina.

This week some of the most distinguished doctors on the rugby scene suggested that injuries in rugby are now unsustainable. They also made the point that bodies may not be able to recover in the time allotted in the match schedule. Therein lies the challenge for Ireland.

When Declan Kidney coached the Irish to victory against Australia in the pool stage in 2011, they looked on course to go all the way to the final. In the run-up to the game, very few predicted that Wales were capable of thwarting Ireland's ambitions. We all know what happened next.

The biggest threat to Joe Schmidt and his team this week will not be in the form of complacency. Four years ago, Ireland were victims of their own sloppy mindset against Wales. This time around many of the players in green may not be able to replicate the physicality shown against France.

Argentina stand in Ireland's way and have benefited hugely from their participation in the Rugby Championship over the past four years. The regular Test-match competition against the cream of the southern hemisphere has given the Pumas a worthwhile yardstick by which to measure themselves. This season, Argentina beat South Africa for the very first time.

The Pumas' form throughout the pool stage of the World Cup, including a narrow defeat to New Zealand, has been impressive, with a total of 21 tries from four games.

They have huge experience in the likes of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Juan Martin Hernandez, Agustin Creevy and Leonardo Senatore and though some of those star names are coming towards the end of their international careers, they still carry huge influence.

For Ireland, Schmidt has selection headaches of his own. The noises around the Irish camp this week suggest Jonathan Sexton will start, despite coming off injured in the first-half against France.

But with Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony out and Sean O'Brien suspended, Schmidt must overhaul his pack.

There is a strong argument for starting Iain Henderson in the back-row alongside his fellow Ulsterman Chris Henry and Jamie Heaslip. Henderson was the dominant physical presence when he came off the bench against France in Cardiff last Sunday and his strength and aggression will be a huge asset against Argentina.

Donnacha Ryan is the type of hard, gritty lock that would relish a physical Test match, so why not start him alongside Devin Toner in the second-row?

O'Connell's absence will be most hard-felt. One would hope that his Munster team-mate can step in and do the role justice. If Sexton is fit, his job will be to unlock a shaky Argentina defence. Statistically, the Pumas have the worst tackle completion record in the tournament and Ireland must look to exploit it.

Conor Murray passed quickly and often last week but his box-kicking, though thankfully reduced in number, continued to be aimless and ill-directed. He gifted possession to French defenders who had time to initiate counter-attacks.

A repeat performance will put his team on the back foot. It is crucial that Ireland retain the ball as much as possible and force Argentina to defend. Nigel Owens generally favours attacking teams. If Ireland can keep possession, gaps will open in the Pumas defence.

Ireland's attitude will go a long way towards determining the result. A less than wholly committed physical performance will leave Ireland vulnerable to Argentina's clinical attack. Juan Imhoff is one of the best finishers in the game. Ireland cannot afford to sit back and allow Argentina to run the ball.

We are now in the knockout stage where we have traditionally failed. Ireland's history in World Cup quarter-finals reads like a long casualty list and there will never be a better opportunity to bury the disappointments of the past.

But in order to create history, Ireland must be prepared to go to war again, but this time with tired and aching bodies. It is an unfair ask of brave young men.

The voices against the excessive physicality of rugby union are growing and becoming louder. World Rugby and this competition needs a reduction in injuries and strategies based on speed and evasion rather than brutal collisions.

The Schmidt game plan of attacking on a narrow front tends to encourage the latter.

However, if Schmidt and company make history, few will count the cost in bodies. Rugby will never be the same, so what better time to make history?

Belfast Telegraph


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