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Dead and buried: The must-see Ireland-Pumas rivalry of old is over

By Liam Heagney

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Ireland versus Argentina used to be the real thing, a snarling, relentlessly vicious rivalry that was a must-see match-up every time the fixture was renewed. From Lens to Adelaide, to Paris and onto Cardiff at four of five successive World Cups, these countries just got stuck into each other with a fiery determination that highlighted that rugby really isn’t a game for gentlemen. 

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The red-carded Tomas Lavanini did illustrate this fixture still has a place for villains, but what unfolded here in Dublin was different to the gravy of old. There used to be thrills, spills and bragging rights that was euphorically celebrated due to the keen competitiveness of the clashes, not only at the finals nearly every four years also but in the matches that happened in June or November.

However, this is now a rivalry that can be declared to be past tense given how awful these Pumas were in this 53-7, seven-tries-to-one loss. This was just the third Ireland-Argentina clash since the 2015 World Cup, not the sort of constant tier-one circuit familiarity designed to keep on nurturing a once intoxicating collision.

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Freddie Burns guest on RugbyPass Offload
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Freddie Burns guest on RugbyPass Offload

Then again, judging by the painful poverty that is currently handicapping Argentina rugby, it’s perhaps best that they are a rarity and not a regular on the Ireland dance card. Such is the lack of box office appeal you could have strolled up to the tickets van outside the ground on game day and paid your way in. 

Irish rugby fans undeniably love their big fixtures against the likes of the All Blacks, but a sedate Sunday service such as this is very much a take it or leave it situation, especially when the cold afternoon out at the Aviva comes at a very steep price to your wallet. As with the series opener versus Japan, the IRFU set the bar too high with its entry prices.

It’s not the first series where there have been empty seats but unlike the administrators, this Ireland team under Andy Farrell is demonstrating a likeable likeness to learn from previous errors of its way. Roll the clock back twelve months and there was a deepening gloom about what was unfolding. Georgia had made Ireland look very second rate for long periods of an Autumn Nations Cup clash, Farrell paying a depressing price for making too many changes to his front line selection. This time around, he opted to bring in a rookie like Robert Baloucoune and give him the chance to prosper surrounded by household names rather than pick him in a creche-like XV where too many young kids would be trying to make their way at the same time.

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This approach worked a treat in ensuring Ireland maintained winning momentum, stretching their current run to eight, a handsome statistic in sharp contrast to the finger-wagging over Farrell last February after Ireland, in losing to Wales and France, made their worst start to Five/Six Nations championship since 1998. 

Encouragingly, the Irish also showed a different type of execution. Compared to the fizz, the vim and the polish of last week’s swaggering dismissal of the All Blacks, a Hollywood-type show where the panache of Jamison Gibson-Park has the backs outside shining just as much as the forwards, things here were a touch more agricultural – something in keeping with the nearby Dublin city streets where protesting farmers were driving their tractors around.

Roll-your-sleeves-up style rugby was the order of the day when it came to dismantling the Pumas, Ireland’s maul the potent weapon that sapped the enthusiasm the visitors would have taken from the third minute try where Mateo Carreras left Tadhg Beirne for dead with the sweetest of steps to come in off the flank and score.

With Ireland having had to make two late changes to their XV, alterations only announced to the crowd with the anthems wrapped up, there was always the possibility of a hiccup in reacting to the sudden readjustment, but that was but a fleeting blip. 

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Ireland had the win in the bag with their 24-7 interval lead and indiscipline was the second-half narrative, Argentina leaking ten points with Pablo Matera yellow-carded and 19 more points after notorious hitman Tomas Lavanini, branded a scumbag by Peter O’Mahony on the stadium reflink, was red-carded on the hour for his ugly assault on sub Cian Healy.

Argentina got what they deserved, a hammering. As for Ireland, Joey Carbery was alright in his 51-minute No10 audition in the absence of Johnny Sexton but there is a long way to go yet in that area before Farrell can get to the next World Cup knowing things will confidently be alright on the night if Sexton is somehow rendered unavailable again when it most matters.

The Pumas were overjoyed in taking advantage of that situation in 2015, the Japanese likewise in 2019, but in an era where ball carrying is enjoying a far great spread across the Irish forwards, there is a lesser emphasis in playing off ten which can only bode well as the more unpredictable the attack becomes, the greater the chance of achieving at the finals in two years’ time. The future is the concern, not spent rivalries like this versus Argentina. 

   

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