Ireland’s 43-20 loss to Argentina demonstrates just how much the loss of one or two players can affect the outcome.
Without their great captain and leader Paul O’Connell and flyhalf Johnny Sexton to steer them around the park, the Irish were no match for an Argentinian side full of running and brimming with self-belief.
Not only that, Ireland entered the match without their first-choice flankers Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony.
Talk about playing with your hands tied behind your back. The only country that might be able to survive pre-game losses like that is New Zealand. Sadly, the depth of Irish rugby is not strong enough to do so.
To Ireland’s credit they were within striking range at 23-20 and 20 minutes to go but simply could not last the distance.
This is not to take anything away from Argentina’s performance. We have been waiting a long time to see an unshackled Argentina. Their willingness to embrace a wider game and their ability to execute such a plan has cast aside the traditional label of a 10-man outfit, with a world-class forward pack and No 10, but little else.
The performance by flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez was impeccable and his haul of 23 points was pivotal in Argentina’s success. His acting skills are not too bad either, milking a penalty from Devon Toner’s high tackle.
It is a tremendous result for Argentina and for World Rugby, as we now have another genuine championship contender for the World Cup.
Ireland’s defeat and Australia’s great escape from an inspired Scotland clearly demonstrated the importance of key players.
The absence of inspirational backrower David Pocock was painfully obvious as the Wallabies produced their worst performance of the Cup to win by the skin of their teeth.
But the narrow win is the best thing that could have happened to Australia, and the Wallabies should have Pocock, as well as dynamic fullback Israel Folau, back for the semi-final against Argentina.
Pocock’s importance cannot be overstated. Like O’Connell for Ireland or Sanchez for Argentina, Pocock is critical to the Wallabies’ chances of success.
For the Wallabies to win, the ruck battle must be won. There are far more rucks than scrums and lineouts combined, so whoever wins the turnover battle usually wins the game, and Pocock is one of the best in the world in this area. While his combination with Michael Hooper works very well, Hooper’s strengths are more in attack and general defence.
Scotland understood this and took advantage of Pocock’s absence by selecting two traditional number 7s. And what a difference it made. Scotland controlled the breakdown and won five turnovers to Australia’s three.
Hooper should retain his spot at No. 7, with David Pocock at No. 8, although the Wallabies would lose nothing with Ben McCalman at Number 8 and Pocock at 7, should the need arise.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the Pocock/Hooper combination has proven to work against the benchmark in world rugby, the mighty All Blacks, and now is not the time for tinkering.
It is difficult to get a read on how Argentina will perform in the semi-final. While they will have drawn great confidence from their win against Ireland and Scotland’s brave efforts, they are facing an Australian side which now understands how easy it is to get tipped out of the World Cup.
Argentina may well have played their grand final against Ireland.
Without taking anything away from Scotland’s magnificent performance, the Wallabies played far below their best, with the exception of Kurtley Beale. Of course, a team only plays as well as they are allowed to, but subconsciously some of the Wallabies may have been over-confident coming into the match.
If in fact that was the case, there is no danger of that happening again.
Australia has to win the ruck battle, and examine what went wrong in the scrum, being penalised for collapsing on three occasions.
While Scott Sio might be held primarily responsible, the fact of the matter is that scrums are a collective effort. Sio has been extremely good for Australia in his Test appearances to date, and the Wallabies should be able to rectify whatever the problem was.
A full-strength Australia should win the semi-final against Argentina, but Los Pumas will not lie down, as they enjoy their time in the sun after defeating Ireland.
Just as it should be.