With New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa all beaten by northern hemisphere opposition on Saturday, it was left to Ireland to complete a historic rout of the Rugby Championship sides when Argentina visited the Aviva Stadium yesterday. They were not found wanting.
In what was billed as the game of the November series in advance of this autumn program, France inflicted a second successive defeat over New Zealand for the first time in a decade with a performance in Paris that was even more convincing than Ireland’s win over the same opposition seven days earlier.
With Wales registering a third successive defeat for the Wallabies against Six Nations opposition in as many weeks and England overturning South Africa in another closely fought contest at Twickenham, the mystique surrounding southern hemisphere rugby took a bit of a hammering this weekend.
While it has been an extraordinarily difficult period for all those teams, operating far from home for long periods — Argentina have spent 16 weeks on the road — there’s no doubt that the forthcoming Six Nations tournament should be one of the most competitive and keenly fought for some time.
If Ireland felt the pressure to complete an extraordinary whitewash of four international powerhouses, who between them occupied all four World Cup semi-final slots as recently as 2015, then it didn’t show.
It’s been a superb autumn series for Ireland, and having lost the opening two games of the year — against Wales and France in last season’s Six Nations — an unbeaten run of eight games since then has catapulted Ireland into a great position.
Perhaps even more important than the achievement of winning eight tests in a row this year is the fact that Andy Farrell exposed 52 different players to the rigours of international rugby. If a return of three-from-three against Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina was pleasing, the manner in which it was achieved, with more emphasis on continuity, achieved with a new attacking shape, and less emphasis on kicking possession away, is even more satisfying.
Not in his wildest dreams could Farrell have contemplated a haul of 142 points and 19 tries from those three contests. Most pleasing of all was that the attacking template and patterns of play were adhered to, despite fielding only three of the back line that started against New Zealand.
Being able to introduce a new young half-back pairing of Craig Casey and Harry Byrne for the last half-hour of play was another bonus, with both former U20 Grand Slam winners acquitting themselves well.
Interesting too the decision by Farrell to leave Joey Carbery on the field, switching him to full-back, thus allowing him to build on the confidence he must have derived from an outstanding display up to that point. Having a second playmaker available to exploit the space on offer in the final quarter was crucial.
A contributory factor in creating that space was the fact that Argentina were reduced to 14 men after Tomas Lavanina was sent off for a reckless clean-out on Cian Healy which could have caused untold damage. Lavanini has history here, with seven yellows and two red cards in international rugby alone coming into this game. He faces a lengthy period on the sideline after this latest indiscretion.
In the aftermath of what transpired against New Zealand, it was always going to be difficult to replicate the electric atmosphere of that occasion on a Sunday afternoon against Argentina.
It was going to be equally challenging for the Irish players to reach the same physical and mental pitch achieved against the All Blacks but, to succeed at a World Cup, especially from the knockout phase onwards, that is exactly what is required.
From that point of view, Farrell had reason to be concerned with Ireland’s performance in the opening half, despite the fact that they enjoyed a comfortable 24-7 lead at the break. A contributory factor here was the fact that Argentina left 13 points behind them in that period, with two straightforward penalty kicks at goal missed by Emiliano Boffelli, and a nailed-on try butchered when Mateo Carreras failed to hold his composure just metres from the line.
Argentina’s lineout was also a mess, losing three crucial throws in the opening period alone. By way of contrast, Ireland were rock-solid at the set-piece. The restructured front row of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher, and Tadhg Furlong is world class in all aspects, be it scrummaging, ball-carrying, breakdown work, and in the tackle. Furlong, in particular, was outstanding.
From a mental perspective, the fact that Ireland were able to deal with the withdrawal of two quality operators in Jack Conan on the morning of the game and Iain Henderson just minutes before kick off without any appreciable falloff in performance was also significant.
Their replacements — Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne — slotted in seamlessly while Ryan Baird, elevated to the bench in place of Beirne, was sensational when called upon to replace the captain, James Ryan, just before half time. His athleticism offers Farrell a number of options down the line. Given his issues with concussion last season, it is concerning to see Ryan called ashore after another worrying knock to the head, especially as he has just recovered his best form.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Farrell was the performance of Carbery, who looked composed and threatening throughout, while his kicking game, both from placed balls and out of hand, was superb.
Ireland need options queueing up behind Johnny Sexton, and both Carbery and Byrne have impressed.
With Sexton sidelined for the next six weeks, Byrne must seize the opportunity to kick on from here with Leinster over the next few weeks, even if his brother Ross is likely to have some say in that.
Ireland faced significant challenges over the last few weeks and emerged with flying colours. Since coming on board, Farrell has always
expressed a desire for the players to take ownership of this team while also encouraging them to play more rugby.
That, above all else, has been the most positive development recently. Both players and management have taken a significant step forward. After this, the Six Nations can’t come soon enough.