Historic first semi-final awaits if Ireland can overcome Los Pumas
Never before have Ireland been beyond the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. On Sunday the squad will hope to make history by overcoming Argentina in Cardiff and secure their place in next weekend’s final four.
But the Men In Green will have to do it the hard way having lost three influential pack members. There’ll be no fairytale finale to inspirational captain Paul O’Connell’s Irish career as he and fellow Munsterman Peter O’Mahony were ruled out of the tournament through injury whilst wrecking ball Sean O’Brien is banned.
Playmaker Johnny Sexton should recover in time but will the Six Nations champions have enough to tackle a supremely motivated, aggressive and talented Los Pumas outfit? There’s no doubt the absentee list will have given the South Americans a confidence boost but on-field indiscipline has also cost Argentina the services of lock Mariano Galarza and centre Marcelo Bosch.
Los Pumas gave the All Blacks plenty of problems in their curtain-raiser and have played some extremely impressive, free-flowing rugby throughout the tournament. Daniel Hourcade’s charges are the top tournament scorers, have made the most clean-breaks as well as offloads whilst running in 22 tries.
Three years of experience tackling the cream of the southern hemisphere crop in the Rugby Championship has only instilled an even greater appetite to succeed and their win over the Springboks in South Africa back in August goes to show what Ireland are up against.
Argentina tend to produce their best on the world’s biggest stage and the Irish know all to well about that. Back in 2007, Los Pumas beat the Greens by 15 points at the pool stage – two of three World Cup victories secured against Ireland. Their sole World Cup defeat against the Shamrocks came by just a single point.
Los Pumas have won five of their last seven against Six Nations opposition at World Cups and although Ireland do have the upper hand in recent head-to-head duels (prevailing in each of the last five), the South Americans haven’t been at full strength, deeming those results meaningless.
Rugby Championship sides have managed seven wins in 10 knockout matches against European foes but four of the most recent five victories in the past two World Cups were by fewer than 10 points. And it’s difficult to believe this battle will be settled by anything more than a converted try.
Ireland take favouritism with the bookmakers and are asked to give up five points on the handicap. It’s understandable for punters wanting to write off Joe Schmidt’s side based on the unavailability of key performers but it is worth pointing out, the Men In Green were able to defeat France 15-3 in the second-half without them and have only conceded two tries in the tournament.
Schmidt’s a magnificent analyst and as expected, he’s spent the past three months ensuring his group peak for last weekend’s French test and knockout rugby. The euphoria of last Sunday’s dominating success over Les Blues will count for nothing if a semi-final place goes missing and Ireland know they’ll have to be at their best.
Since taking charge of the Irish set-up, Schmidt has bounced back from successive defeats to Rugby Championship sides by winning four on the spin as well as running the All Blacks mighty close in Dublin. Ireland may have managed just five World Cup wins over Tier 1 nations since 2003 but there’s a belief the current side eclipses anything seen before and history beckons.
The set-piece, where Ireland have been exemplary under Schmidt and Greg Feek, will be a real dogfight against the tenacity of Los Pumas and Argentina have given no indication they’ll stray away from their expansive game-plan come Sunday. It makes this Cardiff clash incredibly intriguing from a both a punter and supporter perspective.
It’s estimated that almost one million people with Irish roots are living in Argentina today and although the pre-match favourites are justifiably the team to beat, I can’t help but feel they’ve been given too much respect in the markets. Los Pumas can be backed at 5/2 to sneak a victory by 1-10 points and it’s the battle-hardened, unpredictable and dangerous South Americans that offer the best value bet on Sunday.