Adrian O’Farrell reviews the final game of the GUINNESS Series 2008 and concludes that winning ugly is still winning!
Leaving Croke Park last Saturday, there seemed to be a fairly big differential between the pundits’ opinion of events and that of the crowd.
Most people I spoke to, while not exactly overwhelmed at the entertainment on offer, were more than happy to have beaten Argentina fairly convincingly for the first time since the 1980s.
Since getting home and viewing the TV coverage, you would think we had lost heavily such was the all-enveloping pundit gloom surrounding the performance.
We have suffered heavily at the hands of the Pumas since 1999, including their being directly responsible for two of our three World Cup exits.
Even the one World Cup win we had in 2003 was fraught with tension and the desperate shoulder injury sustained by Alan Quinlan in scoring the winning try. Coming into the match, we had lost six of the last eight meetings between the teams.
In each of the last 10 games going as far back as 1990, the nature of the contest has not changed. A massive forward effort is required just to cope with their low-slung strength, allied to not making a target of yourself in the back-line, as they use defence as an offensive stratagem.
I used to get myself quite worked up about it, not understanding why we did not play a wider game, moving their heavy forwards about and pulling away late on.
But we have never been quite able to achieve this and bring our superior footballing skills to bear (although I accept that in the past couple of seasons, essentially since the advent of Juan Martin Hernandez, we have not necessarily held this advantage).
Even in the absence of their three star players, last Saturday was never likely to depart too much from this dog-eared script.
Think back, if you need convincing, to the Lions’ warm-up match versus Argentina in 2005. Argentina were missing 25 players for that match and still were unlucky to only draw with a Lions team all desperate to get their tour off to a good start.
The pre-match comments of Ronan O’Gara were over-hyped, with people reading all sorts of stuff into them.
His was a natural reaction to seeing the Munster performance against the All Blacks. If ever there was a performance that gave the lie to professional rugby being all about process, this was it.
Passion, mercifully, lies at the heart of the game still. And nobody does it better than Munster. It is a game that will live forever in the annals of Irish rugby history, regardless of the fact that Munster were unable to close it out.
There was something else in the mix in that match as well. Fear. George Hook repeatedly said that the performance defied logic, and he was essentially right.
Academy players should not be able to live with All Blacks. But fear is an almighty motivator and this Munster side were surely alive to the possibility that after all the hype, this ‘on paper’ superior force could potentially hand out a massively anti-climactic hammering.
This fear, allied to the positive desire to live up to the heroes of the past, ensured that they threw themselves into the fray with astonishing personal bravery.
Munster hurtled into the Blacks to the degree that they delivered what very few teams manage to achieve against them – front foot ball.
With a productive openside and astute operators such as Peter Stringer and Paul Warwick guiding them, Munster demonstrated that the laws of the game favour the team that can achieve this.
Throw in a crowd that rattled the tourists and you have the template for winning any match. And kickstarting a few careers, to boot.
So when O’Gara declared that the Irish players needed to buy into the jersey that bit more, I do not believe that he was saying that the players were not previously trying their hardest when playing for Ireland, but that there needs to be less focus on process and more focus on winning the scrap first.
Certainly, O’Gara looked like he wanted to win the scrap on Saturday. Yes, his charge on Rodrigo Roncero was brainless.
But the flip side was that he threw himself into tackles in a way that he has not always done, including one textbook tackle from behind on Patricio Albacete.
I was sure that, inspired by the Munster performance, Ireland would throw themselves into Argentina from the off. And when you look back at the video, there was no lack of effort and commitment from the Irish.
In my view, Ireland shaded things up front throughout, aided by an ability to get at the Argentinian lineout.
However, Ireland got very little credit for this, despite the fact Argentina were missing none of their forward unit.
Jamie Heaslip, for one, endured some press criticism for his performance. This was because he was not seen doing what he has become best-known for – open field support and big plays.
In a little closer, he got through some massive work, with effective close-in tackling and I thought he played his part in a very good back row performance, with Stephen Ferris and David Wallace outstanding.
Credit must be given to the Pumas’ defensive line, which had not conceded a try in their matches against Italy and France.
That said, it was disappointing that Ireland lacked ideas in attack. In particular, the second half saw a confused performance from the centre partnership.
Brian O’Driscoll has a tendency to dwell an extra half-second on the ball to see if there is anything on. Sometimes the best thing a centre can do is just to move it wide and preserve the space for the outside men to have a cut.
Given the first half performance, the history of the fixture and the importance of winning the match, I was neither surprised nor disappointed that Ireland elected to kick position in the second half and look to force penalties or a try from close in.
It was effective, and Ireland knew that this particular Argentina team was not going to hurt them from distance.
Ireland also deserve some credit for retaining their composure. Bryce Lawrence is relatively new to international refereeing and created problems for himself when not dealing more forcibly with the early schemozzle.
Listening on r’eflink’, though, he seemed to be regularly advising Ireland ‘not to react’ while getting increasingly frustrated with Argentina.
By the end, Lawrence just wanted the game to end, which can be the only reason he did not deal more harshly with Horacio Agulla’s fist-flashing antics in front of him in the last minute.
As the game wore on, Ireland gradually wore them down and picked up the valuable win that their physical commitment deserved.
The only shame was that O’Gara was not able to convert the late try to extend the margin to over 15, thereby costing Argentina their fourth place in the IRB World Rankings and ensuring that both teams avoid each other in the World Cup draw.
P.S. It is a welcome irony in the week that is in it that Brian O’Driscoll’s try last summer against Australia was named ‘Try of the Year’’. It shows what can be done!