By Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
A MUCH improved Argentina went to Cardiff a fortnight ago and deservedly beat a faltering Wales 26-12 so Ireland have no excuses for getting caught cold. They know they need to step-up against a fired up Pumas looking to cement their place in the Top 8 of the IRB rankings, which is so vital to the World Cup draw. On the upside for Ireland is the fact they coasted to a leisurely 53-0 win over an underpowered Fiji side in Limerick. It was their first win in five games. Declan Kidney is a man under some pressure.
He who dares, wins
Under Declan Kidney, Ireland are renowned for playing conservative, pragmatic rugby but with the very real threat of dropping down to the third tier of the IRB rankings, you’d expect Kidney to be prepared to unleash a match-winner. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see Ulster’s young wing Craig Gilroy has been picked on the left-wing after scoring an impressive hat-trick against Fiji last weekend. Gilroy has quick-fire pace and the confidence to back himself. On the other flank, poacher-in-chief Tommy Bowe will be looking to sniff out opportunities against the impressive Juan Imhoff who finished his try so clinically against Wales. Santiago Phelan, the 38-year old Puma coach deserves much credit for opening up the Argentinians play so they don’t have to rely on numbers one to 10. Which coach will roll the dice first?
Battle up front
As any coach will tell you, it’s up front you win games. Ireland have missed some of their key players in the pack this Autumn. Rory Best, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien are all missing, so they will need new heroes to put their bodies on the line tomorrow. Two players who have shown up well to date are Peter O’Mahony, the young Munster lock cum blindside and Connacht’s Mike McCarthy. The latter especially has shown real dynamism and aggression in the tackle and he’ll need it. Argentina boast, arguably, the finest forward on the planet at the moment in Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who alongside Juan Manuel Leguizamon provides both experience and ballast to the Puma backrow. However, if the underrated Chris Henry can gain the upper hand at the breakdown, Ireland can make it count.
In the backs, if the Ireland pack can provide Jonny Sexton with a decent platform, he can start doing what he does best, pinning the opposition back into the corners. In midfield, Ireland will expect Gordon D’Arcy to calm nerves and without his long-time strike partner, Brian O’Driscoll, D’Arcy’s experience will be vital. He will look to release the rapid Keith Earls at any opportunity, as they go into battle with the powerful midfield combination of Marcelo Bosch and Santiago Fernandez. Argentina boast some genuine quality in the back three that can hurt Ireland. Juan Martin Hernandez is a class act at full-back, while pint-size Exeter wing Gonzalo Camacho proved what a fine finisher he was against Wales. All over the pitch, it looks like a very evenly matched game.
Prediction: This will be very close indeed. I’m going for a home win by four points. I expect Jonny Sexton’s boot to close out the game for the Irish late on. Ireland fans, don’t expect a relaxing evening.
Ireland v Argentina: Saturday November 24, 2pm, Aviva Stadium, Live on BBC Two
Ireland: Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Craig Gilroy, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip (c), Chris Henry, Peter O’Mahony, Mike McCarthy, Donnacha Ryan, Mike Ross, Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Michael Bent, Donncha O’Callaghan, Iain Henderson, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Fergus McFadden.
Argentina : Juan Martin Hernandez, Gonzalo Camacho, Marcelo Bosch, Santiago Fernandez, Juan Imhoff, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo; Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Julio Farias Cabello, Manuel Carizza, Maximiliano Bustos, Eusebio Guinazu, Marcos Ayerza