Ireland, Europe’s bruised and battle-scarred champions, ran out of time and resources, losing their dream of a first World Cup semi-final to a burst of late scoring which took Argentina to a more than flattering 23-point victory.
Argentina have been flying under the radar since their opening night against the All Blacks, who were given the hurry-up for an hour, and making themselves a side no one wanted to meet in the knockout rounds without knocking themselves out. Their coach, Daniel Hourcade, has mixed and matched his way through the pool stage, harvesting his resources so that on Sunday he could put out something, barring the ban on Marcelo Bosch, close to his strongest side.
Ireland arrived in Cardiff close to being on their knees, having lost their captain and totem, Paul O’Connell, two of their back-row warriors, Paul O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien and finally their tactical inspiration, Johnny Sexton. Their replacements did well enough, but when it came time for both coaches to turn to their benches it was Hourcade rather than Joe Schmidt who came up trumps.
Ireland were always up against it. After only 13 minutes they were 17 points down but clawed their way back, going into the final quarter only three points down. Then the scoreboard started to look ridiculous.
Twelve minutes from time a big Argentinian scrum – not always the big weapon expected on the day – launched a move which involved two recent replacements, the prop Lucas Noguera Paz, centre Jerónimo De La Fuente, before the full–back Joaquín Tuculet rolled into the corner with Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls powerless to stop a long arm dotting the ball down.
All week Schmidt had been saying he feared the Argentine back three and we now know why.
Four minutes later the wing Juan Imhoff scooted 40 metres for his second try, the conversion and a final fifth penalty from Nicolás Sánchez earning the fly-half 23 points and – for once uncontested – the man of the match award.
Argentina have long been something of a thorn in Ireland’s side at World Cups, the Pumas announcing themselves as a world power by beating Ireland in Lens in 1999 (to everyone’s surprise) before brushing aside a poor Irish performance on their way to the bronze medal in Paris in 2007. Since then they have been admitted to the Rugby Championship and the more regular meetings with the world’s best – New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa – has speeded their development into a side full of tries as well as a pack that does damage.
Argentina were on the board in under two minutes – two minutes of aerial bombardment. Pablo Matera, in an unequal contest, running over Ian Madigan – Sexton’s replacement. Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe opened up the field with a huge pass to Imhoff and the wing sent Matías Moroni up the right-hand touchline.
Sanchez made it seven nil. Worse was to come at the first scrum when Ireland were shunted off their own ball, conceding the penalty which eased pressure on the Puma line, instead moving it to the other end .
Argentina’s midfield axis of Sánchez and Juan Martín Hernández, prompted by the scrum-half Martín Landajo, had Ireland guessing. Would it be big men or runners coming their way? Sánchez went wide again, Santiago Cordero chipped ahead and the TMO, George Ayoub of Australia, was happy that Imhoff was not offside before he chased down the ball.
Down 14-0 and yet more pain was about to be heaped on Irish ranks, with the wing Tommy Bowe the latest to end his tournament on a stretcher.
A Sánchez penalty stretched the lead to 17 points after only 13 minutes of Argentinian power and guile, with Ireland not getting a sniff until close on the end of the first quarter, when the prop Ramiro Herrera overdid the rough stuff. Herrera went to the sin-bin and Ireland used that momentum to create the first of the game’s mood swings.
Madigan landed his first penalty, only to see Sánchez do the same within 90 seconds, but Ireland were about to make the extra numbers tell when Argentina lost the ball in midfield.
Conor Murray whipped the ball away from a thicket of players and Robbie Henshaw sent Bowe’s replacement, Luke Fitzgerald, down the line, sidestepping his way under the posts to make Madigan’s conversion easy.
Now it was Madigan and the Ireland midfield and forwards asking the questions, a fully restored Puma scrum wobbling three times in as many minutes before half-time brought a brief period of calm. All too brief for Argentina because Ireland were at their throats within minutes of the restart.
A penalty to Ireland under their own posts brought the kind of roar normally reserved for tries at the Aviva Stadium, and when Henderson bashed his way up the middle, it was Fitzgerald again who had the formative say, offloading to Jordi Murphy and Ireland were within three points.
Kicks by Sánchez and Madigan kept it that way, although Herrera came close to a second yellow and an early end to his night, and everything seemed set for a final quarter to match the 60 minutes which had preceeded it.
Instead the arrival of a batch of big men and those tries by Tuculet and Imhoff left O’Connell sitting on the coaching bench cursing his luck and the end of a Test career.