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First Tango in Santa Fe

First Tango in Santa Fe

Winning is the ultimate habit, but there are matches that really need to be won and there are those where a defeat is more easily sustained. Adrian O’Farrell gives us his take on the Tango in Santa Fe.

The first test against Argentina fits into the latter category pretty snugly. With two teams so far removed, in personnel terms, from those that will take the field in Parc des Princes on 30th September this year, it is ludicrous to draw too many inferences.

With a further twelve changes to come this weekend, this tour is doing exactly what it was planned to do. Give everybody in with a shout the opportunity to make a final claim for RWC squad selection and finalise some of Eddie O’Sullivan’s thinking about certain individuals.

Ireland and Argentina have developed a familiarity borne of repeated dances. The musical symbol of Argentina is the Tango, a dance requiring one partner to take a strong lead (think of Osgood Fielding and Daphne in ‘Some Like it Hot’!). The outcome of Ireland v Argentina matches has tended to favour the one that manages to do just this – impose their pattern on the game (Ireland only just managed to do this late on in 2003).

On Saturday, Ireland led the dance early on, but under the weight of their own indiscipline in the second half, ceded the lead role and suffered the consequences.

The manner of the performance last Saturday, however, was encouraging. Insofar as inferences can be drawn from it, the chief conclusion is that there will be no change in terms of the pattern of play that Argentina will bring to the World Cup party. There will be a huge emphasis on suborning opponents up front and strangling the life out of them in the forward exchanges while simultaneously defending well and creating little in the backs.

This shadow side sought to do the same, but weren’t really able to execute it. The encouraging thing was that the Irish forwards looked to be every bit as physical and powerful as the Pumas. In this regard, Neil Best certainly put his hand up while putting the rest of himself about. He has established himself as our executioner-in-chief, and this may be sufficient to get him the nod on a ‘horses for courses’ basis in September.

Equally, Jamie Heaslip did himself some good, though the third member of the backrow, Keith Gleeson, didn’t get his hands on enough ball to really advance his cause. It’s hard to understand why, but the latter half of the season hasn’t been kind to him and he’ll watch the Second Test with some anxiety as Shane Jennings will perceive this as a great opportunity to cement a place in the squad, while scotching any concerns over a poor showing in the Heineken final.

Trevor Hogan put himself about honestly and well. Malcolm O’Kelly served a timely reminder that he represents the most dependable middle of the line option. It may just be that at this stage of his career the enforced break has given his body some welcome and necessary respite. Mind you, Mick O’Driscoll threw in a remarkable ball-stealing cameo late on and has the chance to back that up on Saturday.

Jerry Flannery also threw down a marker in no uncertain terms. Obviously he is going to France, but this was about him saying ‘I’ve had enough of this bench mullarkey. Give me my shirt back’. Combining Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor darts accuracy with a dash of his old derring do, he was Neil Best-like in his physicality.

At prop, we’ve never had it so comfortable against the Pumas, which suggests a definite pat on the back for Simon Best, Bryan Young and also  Tony Buckley. The Shannon man can be forgiven for getting excited should anything happen to the four frontliners, which represents a very quick ascension up the ladder.

Isaac Boss didn’t have a bad game but he will be an anxious bench-warmer on Saturday. For my money, Reddan has the quicker delivery and, in a rich vein of sniping form at the moment, carries the momentum on his side.

It is a shame that Paddy Wallace has picked up an injury as two full, pressurised games would have told us a little more about his temperament. While he was solid last Saturday and he certainly possesses an individual threat, he seemed to adopt a fairly conservative attitude to his touch-kicking. No harm there in that he made all his touches, but some were rather too short and his facial expressions showed it. All in all, though, a success and he inches closer to satisfying Eddie’s principal concerns about him.

The centres will be disappointed with the amount of spilled ball, particularly in the second half, and with stakes highest for Kieran Lewis, he was one of the big losers on the night. He’ll be upset that Gavin Duffy, who did well at fullback and appears to be a player O’Sullivan likes, has been named in the centre for the second test. Barry Murphy, equally, may sniff a utility backs slot in the World Cup squad.

Meanwhile, Brian Carney’s chances are rising faster than the Argentine inflation rate in the 90s. He saw Contepomi’s pass so early that the intercept was a breeze for him and that was the sign of a real poacher. He exudes remarkable self-confidence given the situation he finds himself in and that is a priceless quality to bring to the party. A second showing will be fascinating.

Geordan Murphy did well, despite the missed drop goal at the end. However, I hope Eddie isn’t intent on using him as back-up at no. 10. He doesn’t appear to have the nous for the position, which is no criticism given the paucity of game-time he has had in the position. In the rarefied atmosphere of an endgame against Argentina, you want to have somebody in the position who knows instinctively what to do.

Tommy Bowe will see this tour as a missed opportunity I feel. He didn’t get much opportunity with ball in hand. However, while he generally played okay, he needs to show a little more all-round footballing skill if he’s to muscle his way into the final squad.

I would expect Ireland to cut down on the penalties and in the absence of Comtepomi and Senillosa, responsible for all Argentina’s points last Saturday, eke out a hard-fought win to square the series. If they can do so, they will have garnered the greater share of what few psychological points there are to be won from this tour.