10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
It's here at last! The one every Irish fan has been waiting for since the draw was announced. The Argentina game is undoubtedly the crunch match of the pool. If Ireland win then they are through to the quarter-finals, it's that simple. No what ifs', no bonus points, beat Argentina and they're through. However that task is far easier said than done against a very tough opposition.
It's inevitable that this match will be looked on as a revenge match for Argentina's defeat of Ireland four years ago in Lens. That match remains a bitter memory for Ireland fans. Yet both sides have moved on so much since that game that it almost seems silly to refer to it in the context of Sunday's match. Most people's main memory from that game is Albanese's try and Ireland's desperate attempts to score a try in injury time.
Many people forget that in the run-up to the game Irish fans were very confident of beating Argentina. So much so that many had bought tickets for the quarter-final at Lansdowne in expectation of an Ireland - France match-up. This wasn't just Irish arrogance. Ireland hadn't had such a great World Cup even at that stage. They had beaten Romania and the USA comfortably but had been totally shut down by eventual champions, Australia.
The expectation was based more around Argentina's lack of form. They had lost a dour opening game against Graeme Henry's Wales before beating Samoa and Japan. They had looked a competent but unspectacular side and Ireland had beaten them handily enough in a pre-tournament friendly. The basis of Ireland's misfortune was that they didn't take Argentina seriously enough. Indeed Reggie Corrigan has said it was a case of hop over to France, beat the Argies and come home.
The game itself was a dire, penalty-strewn affair up until the late dramatic finale. Ireland tried too late to move the ball but their efforts came up well short. Ireland went out in humiliation and the biggest inquest in the history of Irish rugby began.
Out of the outpouring of anger and despair emerged a realisation among the powers that be that Irish rugby had to change. It was that or risk becoming a minnow. One of the first indicators of this was the appointment of Eddie O'Sullivan as backs coach. After only two games, the improvement in the backs in the victory over Scotland was remarkable. Irish rugby became more professional and results improved dramatically. The improvement is measured by Ireland contesting a grand-slam play-off with England this year, unthinkable after Lens.
However, Argentina has also experienced their own rugby revolution in the last four years. The game in Lens, the nadir for Irish rugby, was the catalyst for the Argentinians to break the game wide open in their country. Suddenly everyone knew about the Pumas and people were dancing in the streets in celebration of defeating Ireland. Agustin Pichot became a household name and was the first non-footballer to win the Sports Star of the year award. Their rugby union saw the new support and took action to capitalize on it. They finally embraced professionalism and four years later, Argentina are disrespected by no-one. They have routinely beaten the likes of Wales, Scotland and Italy. Both Australia and New Zealand were run remarkably close. This year alone, they have beaten France twice and were robbed against the Springboks in South Africa. One thing is guaranteed, no one in the Ireland set-up will underestimate them this time.
So far the form of both teams has been decent without being spectacular. Due to their tighter playing schedule Argentina have shuffled their side more. They were disappointing against Australia in their first outing but have since given decent displays against Namibia and Romania. Ireland's true form has been somewhat obscured by horrendous playing conditions, the wind versus Romania and the rain against Namibia.
Eddie O'Sullivan has now shown his hand and by his standards the team selection for the match has been quite controversial. It was expected that Reggie Corrigan would return and that David Humphreys would get the nod at out-half. However the composition of the back row has been the biggest talking point. With Anthony Foley absent Victor Costello was expected to get the nod at number eight. After that, it was expected that Keith Gleeson would start at open-side with Eric Miller, Simon Easterby and Alan Quinlan fighting for the remaining spot at blind-side. So it was quite a surprise when Gleeson was left out altogether and Easterby and Quinlan were picked at six and seven respectively.
There has been a strong reaction to the omission of Gleeson, the only out and out open-side in the squad. Since breaking into the side on the tour of New Zealand, Gleeson has been ever-present for every important game. O'Sullivan has said that the selection of the bigger, bulkier Quinlan is a horses for courses selection against the powerful driving style of the Argentina pack. It's a brave call and he has to be applauded for having the courage of his convictions to make it.
So the question turns to Ireland's chances of a win. By his selection, O'Sullivan has shown that he expects a tight, forward dominated contest. The Argentinians have shown with their selection that they expect the same. Gonzalo Quesada is selected to kick the goals with Felipe Conteponi moving back to inside centre.
Much has been made of Argentina's intention to attack the Irish scrum and they are a serious danger. However Ireland are well capable of attacking the Argentinian line-out with equally devastating effect. A side bonus of the back-row picked is that Ireland have now got five proven line-out options. They should look to pressure every Argentina throw. Federico Mendez has been picked at hooker after Mario Ledesma's nightmare against Australia. Mendez threw well against Namibia although the line-out was hardly ever attacked. In his Northampton days his throwing was always a touch brittle and it wouldn't be a surprise to see it come apart again.
Ireland must be careful not to get sucked into a war of attrition against the Argentina pack. Yes, the pack will have to front up but the Irish back-line mustn't be ignored.
Australia showed that the Argentina defense can be opened up and with better handling they could have scored five or six tries. Denis Hickie looks dangerous with every touch and Shane Horgan and Girvan Dempsey are on top form. Brian O'Driscoll's World Cup hasn't taken off as yet but he's a big game player and Sunday would be a chance to answer his critics. Argentina will be wary of the ability of Ireland's backs and it's vital that Ireland utilise this weapon.
Sunday's game is going to have the fans from both sides chewing their fingernails. It could well come down to a couple of kicks. Ireland will pray for a dry, calm day to play their best game but the Australian weather has been so unpredictable anything is possible. It's a gut-wrenching prospect but Ireland have the collective will to get the win, especially with the huge Irish support in the stadium.