Winners and Losers from Ireland's Tour of Argentina
Ireland made history last weekend by claiming their first Test series victory in Argentina, with Joe Schmidt undoubtedly taking many positives from the excursion.
The reigning Six Nations champions took a 29-17 win from their first fixture against the Pumas before making it back-to-back triumphs on Saturday, coming from behind to win 23-17 at the Estadio Jose Fierro.
However, such a tour would be pointless were there not a sample of errors that raise the need for improvement, and Schmidt will take lessons both good and bad away from his trip to South America.
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Winner: Ireland's Set-Piece Dominance Provides Foundation
This tour featured a learning curve for Ireland, but the set piece stood as one area in which they can at least say things are going accordingly.
Across the two Test matches, Schmidt's men failed to lose a single scrum or lineout (16 scrums, 27 lineouts) and pushed their Argentinian counterparts to the wire in this facet of play all the while.
This was perhaps to be expected against the South American representatives, but it's nonetheless encouraging for Ireland to know they can interchange pack personnel and still expect matters to run smoothly in this regard.
Daniel Hourcade's men, on the other hand, were wasteful at the set piece and lacked accuracy at every turn, losing an average of four lineouts per game and being pushed off five of their 11 scrum feeds.
Loser: Lack of Clinical Touch Worrying
Just as the Pumas lacked concentration at the set piece, however, Ireland were sometimes just as, if not more, troubling when it came to open play, wasting chance upon chance in their opponents' 22.
The Irish made a total of nine clean breaks but managed to score just five tries on tour, and that's not to mention all the work that their pack could be doing that doesn't necessarily require a surging run downfield to result in five points.
Argentina showed their own profligacy and made the most breaks of either side in any one game, amassing 11 in the first Test but still running out as 29-17 victors.
However, Schmidt's side should be far above those standards the Pumas are producing, even if this was in their foes' backyard.
The likes of Darren Cave, Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo may look to their handling as something that requires a bit of immediate attention, as whatever talents some of those may have shown in the past year would seem to have gone off the boil somewhat in South America.
Winner: Schmidt and His Standing in the Ireland Hot Seat
It was never really in doubt, but ex-Leinster man Schmidt is now really starting to grow into his role as Ireland head coach, and this was his first genuine chance in experimenting with his squad.
The Six Nations was a long and arduous slog of a contest, and it once again proved the New Zealander's credentials in such a position, but the trip to Argentina was a far messier affair producing the same end result.
Just as any team would love to copy the 2013 heroics of New Zealand, sometimes it's necessary to get these scrappier victories on the board, showing that Schmidt can get his Irish side into gear even when things aren't flowing so fluidly in his favour.
Loser: The Search for Brian O'Driscoll's Successor Lingers
With barely a year to go until the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there still remains a worrying air of doubt over who will fill the void left in Ireland's midfield by the retired Brian O'Driscoll.
Of course, in this instance, "fill" does not equate to "perform to the same standard," but if Ireland are serious about competing for silverware in England, a more dazzling centre combination is needed.
Gordon D'Arcy will continue to do what he has done alongside O'Driscoll in national team colours for years now, and that's fill in where needed, be it at No. 12 or No. 13, but Schmidt has a conundrum in figuring out who is the needed spice in that formula and where he fits.
Any combination of Cave, McFadden and Luke Marshall was tried in Argentina, and even though each of those players showed promise for periods, one could hardly say they're on the level of the world-beaters likely to be coming their way next year.
Ulster's Jared Payne may yet be the answer to the issue if he were to become nationalised later this year, but, even then, it gives the coaching staff very little time to engineer something capable of taking on the best this world has to offer.
Winner: Wolfhounds Entering the Pack
As is usually the case with summer tours, the travels to Argentina saw numerous Ireland minnows brought along for the trip in order to gain some much-needed experience.
The likes of Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Rhys Ruddock, Noel Reid, Iain Henderson and the aforementioned Cave were just some of those who held little or no international experience prior to their trials against the Pumas.
Of course, a long journey lies ahead before any of those tested in Argentina can be termed as regular starters, but the wheels have been set in motion to see more of those once within the Wolfhounds ranks pushed through to the senior hierarchy.
Loser: Pumas' Super Rugby Credentials
In fairness to Hourcade, he took a risk in omitting many of Argentina's Europe-based stars from his squad for this summer's Test series, but it wasn't as disastrous as it could have been.
That being said, Sanzar won't have been too encouraged by some of the more disappointing stadium attendances witnessed in the series. They'll be hoping to see the lack of interest corrected by the time an Argentinian franchise is to make its Super Rugby bow in 2016, per the official Super Rugby website.
The impending additions to the Southern Hemisphere's premier competition won't be challenging for top honours any time soon, one would think, but that cause certainly won't be helped unless the local fans get on board to advance the project.
Hourcade's use of Argentina's homegrown talents is one positive the side can at least hope to feed off, but the two-match loss to Ireland on home soil is demoralising nonetheless.
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