By Phil Rice
Three wins from three in the autumn series of internationals is impressive form in anybody’s book, but after a clinical dismantling of South Africa in the first match we were left with a feeling of what might have been, as Ireland squandered big leads against Fiji and Argentina and in the end were just glad to get the wins.
After 42 minutes last Saturday, Ireland led Argentina 20-0 and everything pointed to a comprehensive victory, but whether the Pumas fought back bravely or Ireland took their foot off the gas, or an element of both, the capacity crowd left the Aviva Stadium with a dissatisfied feeling, as the hosts hung on for a 28-19 win.
It was a sentiment echoed by Joe Schmidt after the game when he commented: “You’re always disappointed when they score the last two tries in the fixture, two tries that were both frustrating, but there were plenty of good elements up to that finish.
“I think we had to make more than 160 tackles, it was very attritional.”
It is fair to say that the three teams Ireland faced in the Guinness series are among the most physical in world rugby, and the home team fronted up well in all three matches.
However, having got into such a strong position against Fiji and Argentina the manner in which they subsided was disappointing.
The two second half tries by the Pumas were poorly defended by Ireland. Both were scored from grubber kicks behind the Irish defence and both should have been cleared by a sweeping defender, but in both cases there was nobody cleaning up behind the defensive line.
Normally Rob Kearney, Conor Murray or the blindside winger should have done that job, but on each occasion it was a simple touch-down for Argentina.
You may say this is being hyper critical but Schmidt has set high standards for this team and there is no doubt that he would have been furious at the ease with which the two tries were scored. On the positive side Ireland were excellent up to Jacob Stockdale’s second try.
The winger had an outstanding game and was justifiably named man of the match.
Both of his tries were finished superbly and he looks to be a great prospect for the future. At 6ft 3in and 16-stone, the Ulsterman is an imposing figure despite being just 21, and with his exceptional pace and safe hands he really is the complete package.
“He’ll get confidence from it, but also hopefully motivation to improve on what he delivered,” said Schmidt on the winger who now has four tries in four caps.
“I am delighted with the way he’s building. He is a kid who is learning fast, and willing to learn. He has got some great athleticism, very big power and he is a young lad.
“He finished that second try really impressively, because it wasn’t just the flat line, it was the fact he could arc around someone as impressive as Joaquin Tuculet.
“So there were some impressive aspects but at the same time he was a little bit hesitant defensively at times, and trying to win the aerial battles were a battle for him.”
Bundee Aki’s tackle count was immense at inside centre and Johnny Sexton was his usual controlling self at fly half. Cian Healy has certainly got his mojo back and was the pick of the Irish forwards, although his fellow prop Tadhg Furlong wasn’t far behind.
James Ryan was shaping up well until he left the field with a shoulder injury early in the second half. Some of the other established players will not look back on this as one of their better days in the green jersey.
It’s back to club duties for the international players this weekend starting on Friday evening with Ulster visiting the Dragons, who took a battering at the hands of Leinster last Friday.
Connacht travel to Zebre for a lunchtime fixture on Saturday and Leinster are away to the ever-improving Treviso.
The Italian side only lost by a single point to Ulster at the Kingspan last Friday and they will be no push-over for Leinster in Italy.
Munster entertain the Ospreys in Thomond Park on Saturday evening in what should be the pick of the fixtures this weekend.
The following weekend will bring a resumption in European Champions Cup action, when the crucial back to back fixtures will go a long way to determining who makes the play-off places.
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Joe Schmidt took a calculated gamble last Saturday that a shadow XV would be strong enough to take care of a second-tier rugby nation.