Whoever wins Pool D is likely to face the Pumas in the World Cup quarter-finals – and both France and Ireland know how tough that task is
The All Blacks. That’s who the runners-up of Pool D face in Cardiff on 17 October. The thought has been in the back of the minds of Irish and French fans for months, both sets of supporters conscious that the prize for winning their group is a World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. ‘Prize?’ Some prize.
Two matches into their World Cup campaign and the Pumas are looking ominous. They ran New Zealand close in their opening match, eventually losing 26-16 as the All Blacks found an extra gear in the final quarter thanks to their stronger bench, and they then demolished Georgia 54-9 in Gloucester last Friday.
In running in seven tries against the Georgians, the Pumas proved they are more than just their traditionally big scrummaging pack. Juan Martin Hernandez is showing signs of the form he displayed eight years ago, when Argentina finished third in the World Cup, while Tomas Cubelli and Nicolas Sanchez are a half-pack pairing of quality and control. Sanchez has the ability to pinch points whenever they are on offer, and against Georgia he scored the first drop-goal of the World Cup, a skill of his that France know all about.
When the two sides met in Paris last November, Sanchez dropped three goals (Hernandez managed a fourth) and kicked two penalities in the Pumas’ 18-13 victory. Mind you, Sanchez was playing behind a pack that day that dominated their opponents, despite the fact Argentina were without veteran back-rowers Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Manuel Leguizamon. But they did have Tomas Lavanini, the 6ft 7in 22-year-old lock who, judging by his performances so far this World Cup, is destined for greatness.
France and Ireland will not relish the prospect of facing Argentina, particularly the French who have have lost nine of their last 15 Tests against the South Americans. Two of those losses occured in the 2007 World Cup, in their opening group game and in the third-place match, and the Pumas believe they have the beating of France this tournament.
In last November’s match they were smarter than France, especially in defence where they did their homework on fly-half Camille Lopez. They were up so quickly on the Clermont No 10 that they cut down his passing options, forcing him to put boot to ball. But they knew his preference for kicking cross-field and the Argentinine back three were waiting. The result was that Lopez, so impressive a week earlier in France’s win against Australia, was unable to exert much influence on the match.
Ireland’s World Cup record against Argentina is not much better. They were knocked out of the 1999 World Cup by the Pumas, scrapped a 16-15 win in Adelaide four years later and were hammered 30-15 in 2007, a match in which Hernandez lived up to his nickname of ‘El Mago’ (The Magician). “They controlled it well in fairness,” lamented Brian O’Driscoll after the defeat. “They are difficult to play against.”
They still are, as they showed against New Zealand and as they demonstrated last month in beating South Africa 37-25 in Durban, a victory that validated the decision to bring them into the Rugby Championship.
That honour was accorded on the back of their 2007 World Cup campaign and there’s a growing sense in Argentina that the 2015 side can at the very least emulate their predecessors. “If they stay focused and don’t have any serious injuries, I think the Pumas can go all the way,” says Diego Albanese, who played for the Pumas in three World Cups and is now a rugby analyst for ESPN Argentina.
Albanese was a gifted wing, who scored ten tries in his 55 internationals, but when he made his debut for Argentina in 1995 it was in a team that tended to play to its forward strengths. That’s now changed and Albanese says the Rugby Championship is responsible. “Four years’ experience of playing the best the teams in the word regulary has given them confidence, self-belief and got them used to playing at a higher speed,” he explains.
Albanese also cites the role of head coach Daniel Hourcade as a factor in Argentina’s fresh approach. Appointed in October 2013, Hourcade had coached the Argentine Development side and unlike France coach Philippe Saint-André he has never had any reservations in blooding young but inexperienced players. “Under Hourcade, their mindset is to attack and play with ball in hand,” says Albanese. “They have been working a lot in core skills, from the props to the wingers because they realised that in order to improve their game, they had to be much better in their basic skills, and you can see that today in the way they are playing.”
Albanese would prefer Argentina to play France in the quarter-final because he believes Ireland’s half-backs are world-class and their defence better organised. As for Hourcade, he didn’t seem unduly worried last November at the prospect of facing France. “Maybe we’ll see each again in the World Cup quarter-final?” he joked to French reporters, as he left the post-match press conference.
Given that France have twice shocked New Zealand in World Cups, perhaps drawing the All Blacks in the last eight wouldn’t be the end of the world for les Bleus.