IRELAND'S ambition to make it into the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup for the first time fell short as they were outscored 43-20 after a magnificent performance from Argentina at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday.
At the death there were no excuses; Ireland were beaten by the better team on the day. In hindsight, Joe Schmidt could justly pronounce that his side paid too heavy a toll for beating France the previous Sunday as too many generals sat as stagehands in the bleachers when their talents were required in the trenches.
And although Ireland lost the match, they lost nothing else in defeat, as the men in green left everything they had on the field of battle and for three quarters of this fixture the wider public were treated to the wonderful live theatre that rugby can offer.
It was a game that had swinging changes on momentum, as Argentina opened like a hurricane that Ireland spent the rest of the game trying to recover from. And although Ireland got close in the second-half, the southern hemisphere side went for the jugular as soon as they fashioned opportunities in the final quarter.
Argentina stamped their authority on the game from the very beginning and they raced into an early 17-0 lead.
In the third minute, a garryowen from Juan Martin Hernandez was caught by the impressive Joaquin Tuculet inside the Irish half and with their first attack, Argentina moved the ball wide to winger Juan Jose Imhoff, who stepped inside to hold the covering Rob Kearney before releasing centre Matias Moroni along the right flank to slide in for a try. A Nicolas Sanchez conversion added two points to the opening score.
Argentina’s game-plan to move the ball wide with speed was a tactic that reaped dividends for the Pumas throughout the game and their back three of Tuculet, Santiago Cordero and Juan Jose Imhoff were electric from start to finish.
In the early exchanges Argentina were barbaric at the breakdown and seemed to breach the gain-line at will. This early supremacy was personified in the seventh minute when they pushed Ireland off their own scrum and were awarded a penalty.
It seemed only a matter of time until Argentina scored again and it duly arrived in the 10th minute when, after clean rucking, the South Americans once again took the ball wide. This time Cordero lobbed the ball past the Irish line for his fellow winger Imhoff to touchdown for their second try.
During this period Ireland were also coming out second best in the kicking exchanges as Argentina played the game in Ireland’s half and it was during this time when Mike Ross was pinged for playing the ball off his feet and Sanchez extended the lead to 17-0 from the resultant penalty.
With Ireland losing collisions all over the field, a heavy beating looked a distinct possibility, but instead of raising the white flag Ireland endeavoured to chase down the lead.
They began to hang onto possession and build through the phases. Ireland were then given a helping hand when Argentina prop Ramiro Herrera was sent to the sin-bin for a late hit on Keith Earls. Ian Madigan kicked for the corner in an attempt to seize the initiative and from a line-out maul, Ireland were awarded a penalty that Madigan slotted over to open his side's account.
During the one-man advantage, Ireland began to take the game to their opponents and their enterprise was rewarded in the 25th minute when substitute Luke Fitzgerald, on for the injured Tommy Bowe, scored a terrific try.
Ireland were playing with a penalty advantage when Madigan forced the play to the left winger, who cut back inside past the covering full-back and raced 30 metres for the score. Madigan added the extra two points to leave the scoreline reading 20-10.
Ireland now began to dominate at the set piece and they turned over Argentinean ball after three consecutive scrums even though the score remained unchanged until the break.
Ireland got off to a great start in the second-half and within three minutes had narrowed the gap to three points. It was difficult not to be impressed how Ireland worked themselves back into the contest, and the momentum appeared to be with Joe Schmidt's men.
An Irish lineout saw Rory Best throw to Jordi Murphy and off a set-piece move, Luke Fitzgerald tore through the Argentinean cover. The Leinster winger then had the presence of mind to pass the ball back to the onrushing Murphy, who gathered the oval and raced over the line from 15 metres out.
After Madigan’s conversion, the large Irish contingent at the Millennium Stadium began to believe that this was to be their day. With Ireland in the ascendancy, Argentina managed to add three points to their tally when Sanchez kicked between the posts on their first foray into Irish territory.
Madigan cut this lead back to three points when the previously sin-binned Herrera almost received a second yellow card for attacking a ruck and making contact with an opponent’s head. Madigan then had a chance to level the game but his penalty attempt sailed narrowly right of the posts.
With a quarter of the game to go, both sets of supporters were on their feet encouraging their countrymen, when Argentina suddenly hit another purple patch.
Another Sanchez penalty was followed up by a try in the 69th minute from Argentina as full-back Tuculet found his way over the line to touch down near the corner. This turned out to be the decisive score of the game and the Sanchez conversion left Ireland in need of two converted tries with just 10 minutes remaining.
It proved too tall a task to overcome. With eight minutes remaining , Argentina once again targeted Ireland in the wide channels and were rewarded for their attacking adventure when Manuel Fernandez Lobbe fed Juan Jose Imhoff, who ran untouched and grounded the ball under the post. The routine conversion and another late penalty saw the Argentineans into an unassailable lead for a victory that they sincerely merited on the day.
They will face Australia in the semi-finals and promise to provide the two-time winners a stern test.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Iain Henderson; Jordi Murphy, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip.
Subs: Richardt Strauss, Jordi McGrath, Nathan White, Donnacha Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Luke Fitzgerald.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero, Matias Moroni, Juan Martin Hernandez, Juan Imhoff, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo; Marcos Ayerza, Agustin Creevy, Ramiro Herrera, Guido Petti, Tomas Lavanini, Pablo Matera, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Leonardo Senatore.
Subs: Julian Montoya, Lucas Noguera, Juan Pablo Orlandi, Matias Alemanno, Facundo Isa, Tomas Cubelli, Jeronimo De La Fuente, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino.