Jonathan Sexton kicked 13 vital points with his trusty right boot to steer Ireland to a battling 28-17 win over a valiant Argentina in Dublin.
It wasn’t as convincing as the 54-7 triumph over Six Nations rivals Italy in Chicago a week ago but Joe Schmidt’s men deservedly made it nine wins from ten games in 2018 with a second-half performance in particular that suffocated the Pumas.
Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki crossed for tries before the break, while Luke McGrath did likewise in the second half, and in World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Sexton Ireland had a fly-half pulling the strings and keeping the opposition at bay from the tee.
His opposite number Nicolas Sanchez was keeping Argentina within striking distance but the squad depth that has been developed under Schmidt came to the fore as the second-half replacements – McGrath especially – impressed and successfully killed the game off.
Sanchez slotted the Pumas into an early 3-0 lead at the Aviva Stadium but Ireland responded perfectly as the pack exerted their dominance by driving forward with a maul and scrum-half Marmion sniped from the edge to dive over.
Sexton’s conversion was unsuccessful, and although he would go on to more than make amends, Sanchez first slotted a second penalty before emerging star Bautista Delguy crossed in the corner for the Pumas after Matias Orlando had made a scything initial break through a few tackles.
At 11-5 down, the hosts responded in style as consistent pressure and numerous phases eventually led to Aki skipping inside his defender and sliding over the whitewash, before Sexton added the conversion.
One worry for Schmidt however will be Sean O’Brien – making his first international appearance for 12 months due to injury – going off shortly before half-time with an arm injury.
That came between the two fly-halves trading penalties in the waning first-half minutes to ensure a 15-14 interval lead for the hosts.
Sanchez edged the Pumas in front with another three-pointer just after the break but Ireland then turned the screw as two Sexton penalties were sandwiched by McGrath’s try off the back of a five-metre scrum awarded when Dan Leavy was held up over the line.
It was a fitting reward for an impressive Irish forwards display and the hard-fought win sets Schmidt’s men up nicely for a mouth-watering clash with the world champion All Blacks next weekend.
What they said:
Peter O’Mahony (Ireland back-rower): “The tough nature of the game was mostly down to how Argentina played. We developed a rhythm in the second half and got points from good, sustained pressure which is a positive.
“We’re going to have improve across the board for New Zealand next week but each week we want to get better. It was incredibly physical here and it will be next week.
“It was a great way to kick off against Italy last week and another good win this week. It’s a good position to be in with a bit of momentum
“The competition in the squad is affecting us all in a hugely positive way. There’s competition but an understanding it’s not about you, it’s about the group. Rory Best (Ireland captain): “It was tough and very physical out there. We knew Argentina would bring that and they didn’t disappoint.
“We were a bit slow out of the blocks, they won a few 50-50s and we had to grind certain parts of that first half out.
“Our scrum was really good, earning a turnover and a penalty. We weren’t able to launch off the lineout as we’d have liked to but there are a lot of positives and a lot of work-ons.
“It’ll be a big step up next week. It’s about making sure we get better – we want to go out and win and keep this home record.
“It won’t just happen for us – we’ll have to prepare well and play better than we did here. New Zealand will put us under a lot more pressure but you want to play best teams in world – it’s why you play Test rugby.”
Jonathan Sexton is one of five players up for World Rugby Player of the Year and his performance against Argentina will have done his candidacy no harm at all.
Sexton has proved his ability to make kicks under pressure time and time again – as demonstrated against France in the first game of this year’s Six Nations – and his 13 points were instrumental in handing Ireland victory.
His opposite number Nicolas Sanchez was keeping the Pumas in touch but Sexton consistently nailed his kicks from the tee and was the point-man for Ireland’s attack as they dominated territory.
Whether it was Kieran Marmion or Luke McGrath at No.9, Sexton formed a fluid, dangerous half-back pairing and his 41 completed passes show his distribution to Ireland’s game-breakers was also impressive.
Ireland were dominating territory throughout the second half but only had a precarious one-point lead with 15 minutes remaining at 18-17.
Following consistent pressure and the pack knocking at the door of the Argentina try-line, Dan Leavy blasted his way over, only to be held up by superb Pumas defence.
But from the five-metre scrum, Ireland secured solid ball at the back, CJ Stander picked up and popped to Luke McGrath who weaved his way over the whitewash for a decisive score.
Stat Watch – Luke McGrath has now scored international tries in back-to-back weeks, giving him three tries in eight Ireland appearances.
– It was a record tenth home win in a row for Ireland
– Winger Jacob Stockdale made the most metres with ball in hand for Ireland with 53
– Argentina’s second row put in a heroic defensive display with starting locks Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno racking up 44 tackles between them