Ireland and Argentina will square off at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday in the quarter-finals – but who will emerge victorious to book their place in the last four?
By David Marsh
After an impressive 24-9 win over France to finish at the summit of pool D, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have set up a World Cup quarter-final showdown with Argentina at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday.
However, they paid a heavy price in doing so, with Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and Jonathan Sexton all forced to retreat from the field of battle with injuries. The two forwards have since been ruled out for the remainder of the tournament.
Schmidt’s pack was dealt another blow this week when flanker Sean O’Brien was cited for punching Pascal Pape and a one-week ban means he misses out.
However, after a frustrating week Ireland will breathe a collective sigh of relief after Sexton was declared fit enough to be named in the starting XV to face the Pumas.
Although Ireland will be relieved to have avoided New Zealand, they will be under no illusions of the task they face in subduing the tricky Argentinians.
The Pumas caught the All Blacks off guard during their first pool fixture and were close to coming away with a famous win. They had the world champions on the rocks and were leading 16-12 just before the hour mark only for tries from Aaron Smith and Sam Cane to spare New Zealand’s blushes by giving them a 26-16 win.
Argentina’s threat out wide
Argentina breezed through the remainder of the pool stage with comfortable wins over Georgia, Tonga and Namibia, scoring a total of 21 tries to rack up a grand total of 179 points heading into the quarter-finals – making them the highest-scoring team of the tournament.
Wingers Santiago Cordero and Juan Imhoff have been in scintillating form, scoring three tries each, and veteran fly-half Nicolas Sanchez‘s personal points tally is a whopping 51.
The relatively unknown Cordero was handed the No 14 jersey after Argentina’s first-choice winger Manuel Montero was ruled out with injury before the tournament began.
Cordero was playing sevens rugby for Argentina just six months ago, but announced himself on the world stage with two tries in a Man of the Match performance in the 54-9 dismantling of Georgia.
Up front, Argentina will fancy their chances against an Irish pack that has been dealt a triple whammy in losing O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien – three huge figures for the men in green.
Test matches are often won or lost at the breakdown – no one knows that better than the English back row who were outplayed by Australia two weeks ago.
Forced to rejig the pack, Schmidt has been forced to call Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy into the starting line-up. Although solid replacements, they lack the quality of first-choice options O’Brien and O’Mahony.
Argentina’s back row of Pablo Matera, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leonardo Senatore will look to expose their Irish counterparts’ little preparation time to win their own personal battle at the breakdown.
However, the Pumas will be without a key player of their own. Sat in the Millennium Stadium stands will be Saracens centre Marcelo Bosch, who also fell victim to the citing commissioner this week for a dangerous tackle during the win over Namibia.
Bosch would have been a certain starter to face the Irish, not least for his long-range goal-kicking, but Argentina remain perfectly capable of picking up a win without him, with Matías Moroni starting at outside-centre.
The fixture is dripping with history. In three previous World Cup meetings, Argentina lead Ireland by two wins to one, with the most recent coming in 2007 when the Pumas sent Ireland crashing out in the pool stage with a 30-15 win in Paris.
Argentina also shocked the rugby world with a famous victory over Ireland in the 1999 World Cup when they ran out 28-24 winners in a highly charged quarter-final play-off in Lens.
Controversy has also played its part in meetings between the two sides in the past, with things turning nasty in 2004 when Ireland accused the Argentinians of eye gouging.
Argentinian fly-half Felipe Contepomi – on media duties at this World Cup – developed a personal rivalry with Ronan O’Gara when he joined Leinster in 2006, and he spoke publicly of his hatred for Munster, with O’Gara often in the firing line.
A new chapter in this rivalry is set to be written on Sunday, and the stakes are higher than ever.
With both teams boasting lethal attacking options and a compact defence to match, this mouth-watering encounter has the potential to have spectators on the edge of their seats from the first minute to the last.
Both sides have dominated the statistics tables during the tournament. Ireland have the best lineout success with 98% completion, and top the charts for average carries (148) and passes made (201) per match.
Argentina have made the highest number of average metres per match (672), the most offloads (18 a game) and most number of breaks per match (14.8).
Schmidt’s tactical mastermind squaring off against the unpredictable Argentinians is set to be a World Cup spectacle when opposite styles of play collide.
The Argentinians should run the Irish close, but Schmidt’s meticulous planning and organised structure should see them just about edge it to make it to their first-ever World Cup semi-final.