Joe Schmidt’s side welcome Argentina to the Aviva Stadium this evening at 6.30pm.
AFTER THE PHONY war in Chicago last weekend, today feels like the start of Ireland’s November Test series proper.
Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Keith Earls and co. are back in harness, the atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium should be a great deal better than it was at Soldier Field, and Joe Schmidt appears to be fired up.
As importantly, the opposition, Mario Ledesma’s Argentina, should provide a far sterner test than a second-string Italy did a week ago. With the hope being that last night’s rain has cleared by kick-off [6.30pm, RTÉ/Channel 4], this evening should be a real step up.
Ireland have several big guns back in the starting XV.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
Schmidt has already warned his players that anyone who has an eye on the All Blacks next week will be watching that game from the stands.
The returning heft of several proven front-liners makes Ireland 17-point favourites but the Pumas did show signs of progress under the new coaching ticket of Ledesma and Gonzalo Quesada in the Rugby Championship, beating Australia and South Africa for a best-ever return of two wins in six games.
Their ‘bajada’ scrum, with just a 79% success rate on their own feed in the Rugby Championship, could be a weak point, however, particularly with captain Rory Best and Cian Healy joining Furlong in returning to the Ireland front row.
Injury to Rob Kearney means a big opportunity for Jordan Larmour at fullback, but his team-mates are confident in the 21-year-old’s ability to step up to the mark in his biggest test yet.
The same applies for 22-times capped Kieran Marmion, starting at scrum-half in place of the sidelined Conor Murray.
Having Johnny Sexton outside him should help the Connacht man to approach this contest with confidence, while a midfield of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw – Garry Ringrose misses out with a hip injury – means Ireland are in strong shape in midfield.
26-year-old Marmion has delivered for Schmidt before, most notably against England in the 2017 Six Nations to deny them a Grand Slam, and has been waiting for a chance like this.
“Kieran is the type of scrum-half that no matter the ball you give him he will make something of it because he is tenacious, he’s nuggety and he isn’t afraid to take people on,” said Ireland captain Best.
“It’s just his nature, it’s very different to what he is like off the pitch where he is very quiet but you get him on a rugby pitch and he’s like a terrier.
Marmion gets his opportunity with Conor Murray missing.
Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“Ultimately, when you have Kieran in there and when you have Johnny Sexton, the midfield we have and the back three, you want to get them front-foot ball as a pack.”
Renowned for a rather wild offloading game in recent years, both at Test level and in Super Rugby with Jaguares, these Argentinian players have been pushed to change their rugby under Ledesma.
Having led Jaguares to nine wins in 16 games in Super Rugby this year, and a first-ever play-off game, Ledesma took over from Daniel Hourcade as Pumas head coach in August, after they had lost twice to Wales and once to Scotland in three home June Tests.
Argentina are now kicking more than before, their average of 23 kicks in play per game meaning they kicked more than anyone in the Rugby Championship, while they also conceded fewer turnovers than the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks in this year’s competition.
Clearly, the aim is to have greater balance in their game, but this group of Argentinians can still tear it up – averaging three tries per game in the Rugby Championship.
Today’s starting back three of Emiliano Boffelli, Ramiro Moyano and 21-year-old sensation Bautista Delguy – who has scored four tries in eight Tests so far – will be extremely dangerous if their pack can provide a platform or Ireland kick loosely.
“They just go out there and do their thing,” said Ledesma of his back three. “Larmour makes you think about Bofelli or Moyano or Delguy – he is not very big but elusive, spontaneous, good on his feet and they all have no fear of failure.”
The Pumas front row looks weaker without European-based tightheads Ramiro Herrera and Juan Figallo – omitted in favour of home-based players – as well as the injured loosehead Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, even if hooker and former captain Agustín Creevy is a grizzled, abrasive presence.
Santiago Medrano gets a big start at tighthead prop.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
“I’ve played against Creevy a few times and he is a quality player firstly, but he is an unbelievable scrummager,” said Best.
Ledesma admits the Pumas have been poor in this department but he expects to get long-term results from the recent pain at scrum time.
“The scrum is as much a mental battle as a physical one,” said the Pumas boss. “It is the toughest job on the field, 100%. You’ve got 900 kilos behind you and 900 kilos in front of you and you’ve got to put your head in a place where no one wants to, dark places and stuff.
“And I think it is good for those kids to start learning, learning the hard way. Your tighthead, Furlong, he is the best in the world but when he went to the 2015 World Cup, he was not very good.
“Now he is the best. We are going through a process we are obliged to and are paying a little bit of a price to do that but I’m ready to do it. We need to step up, keep growing and never hide.”
Openside Pablo Matero is the new Argentina skipper and will lead by his powerful example in a back row that also, rather surprisingly, includes second row Guido Petti at blindside flanker, albeit wearing the seven jersey.
All of Petti’s 42 Pumas caps so far have come as a lock, with his selection in the back row perhaps indicating the visitors’ intent to go hard after Ireland’s lineout, such an important platform for Schmidt’s side.
Schmidt himself admitted on Thursday that he hadn’t expected that selection and joked that Ledesma likely had a “cunning plan” in store.
Ledesma’s reply yesterday?
“There is going to be something in the food tonight!”
Ledesma is hoping to cause an upset.
Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Tomás Lavanini is a superb second row when his discipline is in order, but Ireland appear to have the edge collectively up front – where Sean O’Brien joins Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander in a well-balanced second row.
Iain Henderson – calling the lineouts – and James Ryan are fresh options in the second row, with the experienced Devin Toner in reserve, while Dan Leavy is sure to be hungry off the bench for Ireland after having the start of his season stunted by injury.
The mercurial Nicolás Sánchez is very influential for Argentina at 10, often positively but sometimes negatively, though Sexton is likely to be the more controlling of the out-halves in this contest.
There are dangers for Ireland but Schmidt’s strong starting XV should be capable of gathering more winning momentum into next weekend’s highly-anticipated clash with the All Blacks.
15. Jordan Larmour
14. Keith Earls
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. James Ryan
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. CJ Stander
16. Sean Cronin
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Devin Toner
20. Dan Leavy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Joey Carbery
23. Andrew Conway
15. Emiliano Boffelli
14. Bautista Delguy
13. Matias Orlando
12. Jerónimo De La Fuente
11. Ramiro Moyano
10. Nicolás Sánchez
9. Tomás Cubelli
1. Santiago García Botta
2. Agustin Creevy
3. Santiago Medrano
4. Matías Alemanno
5. Tomás Lavanini
6. Pablo Matera (captain)
7. Guido Petti
8. Javier Ortega Desio
16. Julián Montoya
17. Juan Pablo Zeiss
18. Lucio Sordoni
19. Rodrigo Bruni
20. Tomás Lezana
21. Gonzalo Bertranou
22. Joaquin Diaz Bonilla
23. Matías Moroni
Referee: Nic Berry [Australia].
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