By Nick Mulvenney
Even more than usual rests on the shoulders of Jonny Sexton when he lines up for a depleted Ireland against in-form Argentina on Sunday in what looks like being the tightest of the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals.
Ireland need their halfback playmaker, who has shrugged off injury to take his place in the side, at the peak of his powers as they seek to overcome the loss of two key players to injury and another to suspension.
The Pumas eased into the last eight on the back of a free-scoring running game and will be confident they can beat the Six Nations champions at the Millennium Stadium (kickoff 3pm) and set up a semi-final against Australia or Scotland.
The Irish have never been beyond the quarter-finals at a World Cup and their hopes of doing so this year were rocked this week when captain Paul O’Connell and flanker Peter O’Mahony were ruled out of the rest of the tournament by injury.
A further blow came when openside Sean O’Brien was banned for a week after throwing a punch during the victory over France last Sunday, forcing coach Joe Schmidt to rejig his back row.
“Obviously, it’s important,” Pumas centre Juan Martin Hernandez said of the Irish absentees. “But I think we should focus more on our game and the change in our style that has been working so far. We need to be strong.”
Sexton’s presence certainly gives Ireland a boost. His kicking from hand and off the tee, are key to the green machine’s effectiveness.
“We’ve allowed Johnny to build his way back into the week,” Schmidt said. “He had a fairly light start to the week but trained fully in the Millennium Stadium this morning and we feel he’s ready to go.”
Number eight Jamie Heaslip captains the Irish from a new-look back row, with Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry filling the flankers’ positions, while Iain Henderson replaces O’Connell at lock.
Argentina also lost a key player to suspension in Marcelo Bosch, cited for a dangerous tackle against Namibia. Winger Matias Moroni moves to outside centre to replace him.
Loose forward Juan Manuel Leguizamon misses the match because of injury but the back row of Pablo Matera, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leonardo Senatore will test the Irish at the breakdown and, no doubt, target Sexton’s defensive channel.
The Pumas reached the semi-finals in 2007 – one of two tournaments in which they ended Ireland’s World Cup — and Hernandez, the hero of that campaign, will line up at inside centre outside Nicolas Sanchez on Sunday.
Flyhalf Sanchez is as important to Argentina as Sexton is to Ireland and his accurate place-kicking is likely to punish any Irish indiscipline inside their own half.
Ireland have developed the all-important habit of winning under Schmidt, however.
“The players that are here, we know we’ve a chance of making history this weekend. That adds to the pressure but in the past two years we’ve risen to the pressure,” flanker Henry said.
Ireland: 1-Cian Healy, 2-Rory Best, 3-Mike Ross, 4-Devin Toner, 5-Iain Henderson, 6-Jordi Murphy, 7-Chris Henry, 8-Jamie Heaslip; 9-Conor Murray, 10-Johnny Sexton, 11-Dave Kearney, 12-Robbie Henshaw, 13-Keith Earls, 14-Tommy Bowe, 15-Rob Kearney
Replacements: 16-Richardt Strauss, 17-Jack McGrath, 18- Nathan White, 19-Donnacha Ryan, 20-Rhys Ruddock, 21-Eoin Reddan, 22-Ian Madigan, 23-Luke Fitzgerald
Argentina: 1-Marcos Ayerza, 2-Agustin Creevy (captain), 3-Ramiro Herrera, 4-Guido Petti, 5-Tomas Lavanini, 6-Pablo Matera, 7-Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 8-Leonardo Senatore; 9-Martin Landajo, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 11-Juan Imhoff, 12-Juan Martin Hernandez, 13-Matias Moroni, 14-Santiago Cordero, 15-Joaquin Tuculet.
Replacements: 16-Julian Montoya, 17-Lucas Noguera, 18-Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19-Matias Alemanno, 20-Facundo Isa, 21-Tomas Cubelli, 22-Jeronimo De La Fuente, 23-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)