Peter Stringer: Ireland veered away from game plan under Argentinian pressure

Our World Cup columnist looks back on a desperately disappointing day for Irish rugby.

THIS WEEK WILL be among the toughest in the careers of Ireland’s players as they deal with the reality of being out of the World Cup.

It’s incredibly tough, sickening even. I know, I’ve been there.

In 2003, we went out in the quarter-finals, but 2007 was even worse. Out at the group stage after all the hype and expectation, all the hope that we could achieve a semi-final or even a final. Devastating.

IrelandÕs Rob Kearney at the end of the match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With this Ireland group, because of the back-to-back Six Nations titles and some big scalps that they’ve taken in the last two years, the hype was justified. But it’s a nightmare for the lads heading home early, particularly after such a resounding loss.

The cure is getting back on the pitch.

It’s the only way to move on, because the failure can linger in your mind if you’re at a loose end. Having a week off – any down time really – is horrible.

Losing a Heineken Cup final was the very worst because you had a whole summer of thinking about it. These Ireland players will just want to be back on the pitch and shaking off the memory of it.

In the first 20 minutes on Sunday, Argentina brought an unbelievable physicality and aggression to every single tackle and carry. Unlike at previous World Cups, they maintained it for the full 80.

When it mattered, they took their scores. From having played against them over the years, they’re a completely different team when they have to come from behind.

They tend to force things, become indisciplined and allow you to kick your points.

Ireland, to me, veered off their game plan in their attempt to catch Argentina. They would have gone out with a plan that involved lots of kicking off Conor Murray and Ian Madigan, turning the Argentinians and putting them under pressure that way.

When you go so many points behind, the mindset can change, even though it might be away from what you trained all week, away from Joe Schmidt’s game plan. Guys are thinking, ‘Shit, we’re chasing this game.’

Conor Murray dejected after the game Ireland veered away from their plan under pressure. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Lads can go off individually rather than sticking to the blueprint. I think that’s where we lacked the leaders who were missing on Sunday.

What would Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton have done differently? It’s about understanding the situation when you’re on the field. Sometimes it’s not actually about ‘adapting’ at all, but instead staying cool enough to stick to the original strategy.

A less experienced player looks at the scoreboard and thinks, ‘We’ve got to do something different here.’ A leader is capable of calming themselves and others, realising that the situation is totally changed but that the game plan will work.

With more than 25 minutes to go, Ireland were just three points behind, at 23-20. After all that had come before, and even with the missed shot at goal, they were very much in it.

At that point, it’s not about someone coming up with something special, it’s about experienced players saying, ‘we know what the plan is, we’ve done the work, we’ve come back into this game.’

An inexperienced player’s mind might still be stuck on the fact that Ireland were 17-0 down at one stage, and it is very hard to shake that uneasy feeling. 

Where was the search for territory when Ireland were back to 23-20? It’s what they’ve so often been built on under Joe. Instead, they looked to play out of their own half with an attacking plan that isn’t really suited to doing that.

In the first half when Madigan hit the post with a penalty at 20-10, Santiago Cordero tried to run the ball out from underneath his own posts, Iain Henderson got a big hand to the ball, knock on.

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Robbie Henshaw dejected after the game Schmidt's squad were left to head home early. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

Argentina throw the ball around and take risks, so why didn’t they find themselves in that situation more?

A good kicking game, a really aggressive kick chase – that’s what Ireland have been good at under Joe. I just felt they tried to force things when there was still time on the clock.

Ireland generally couldn’t get over the gainline. One Argentinian tackler would fly at the carriers’ ankles and the next defender would smash in high on the ball. Ireland’s main carriers – Heaslip, Henderson and Healy – just weren’t making yards and it was a worrying sight from early in the game.

Argentina’s one-off carries were getting over the gainline and the Irish defenders were soaking the tackle.

The Pumas won the battle of the collisions and fed off it. They had forwards who were able to handle the ball. I thought Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe was sensational stepping in at first receiver, carrying and also skipping players, passing to the edges.

It looked like Ireland didn’t expect them to play to the wide channels and they were rampant there.

Argentina’s game plan was to target Ireland in those areas and they stuck to it ruthlessly, even when Ireland got back to within three points. Schmidt’s men, on the other hand, veered from their plan under the mental stress of a World Cup quarter-final.

That makes the disappointment all the greater.

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About the author:

Peter Stringer  / Ex-Ireland and Munster scrum-half, now with Sale Sharks.

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