Tomorrow evening at the Manchester City Academy Stadium, Ireland will contest the semi-final of the World Rugby U20 Championship against Argentina. The Pool C winners claimed impressive victories over France and South Africa in the group stages, and will be looking to emulate the success of their senior counterparts in last autumn’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
Six of Argentina’s 2015 squad form part of the matchday 23 for this year’s semi-final, while another – flanker Benito Paolucci – captained the side in the opening round against France before being ruled out of the rest of the tournament with knee ligament damage. This injury has forced head coach Nicolás Fernández Lobbe to alter his selection strategy, switching second row forward Marcos Kremer to blindside flanker. This has allowed Ignacio Calas and Franco Molina to start together in the second row, and added extra power to the back five of the pack:
After a 6 Nations in which they were beaten for physicality on a number of occasions, Ireland’s forwards have fronted up and put in some strong performances in the group stages; h0wever, tomorrow they will be giving up on average five kilograms a man in these positions, and this reflects a clear strength in Argentina’s game. In their win over South Africa the strength of their fringe defence was impressive, and shutting down forward carriers like James Ryan and Andrew Porter early would force Ireland to attack through different channels. In attack, the Argentinean pack couples power off 9 with no little handling skill – Franco Molina in particular has shown confidence as a first receiver in the Aly Muldowney mould. He set up Tomás Malanos’ try against South Africa from a well-executed set-piece move, but looked comfortable throughout the game in this role in phase attack. Gaspar Baldunciel at hooker is another dynamic carrier, but had some issues at the lineout against the Boks; Molina is an excellent defensive jumper, but the pack struggled with timing on their own throw in the first half of this game. Indeed, the set piece (and especially the scrum) should be an area for Ireland to target after dominating New Zealand’s front row and disrupting their lineout in the pool stages. An inability to provide stable ball from scrum and lineout proved problematic for Argentina against the South Africans, and Andrew Porter – one of the tournament’s standout players – could cause Baldunciel and Medrano some issues in the former. Ireland’s driving maul has been a consistent source of points so far, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to Argentina not engaging the drive – the South Americans employed this tactic on a couple of occasions against South Africa on lineouts outside their own 22.
The loss of Bill Johnston to a shoulder injury has been a huge blow to Ireland’s chances of going all the way in the competition, and Argentina likely shape up stronger at half-back as a result. Both scrum-halves in their squad played in the 2015 tournament, while Domingo Miotti at fly-half will hope to get the better of Johnston’s replacement – Ireland’s regular U20 6 Nations starter – Johnny McPhillips. Miotti represented a senior Argentina side in the Americas Rugby Championship this spring, and brings an excellent kicking game (both out of hand and off the tee) to the table, along with good distribution and strong defensive skills. Patricio Baronio starts inside him at 9, with Lautaro Bazán providing quality back-up on the bench. Outside Miotti are captain Juan Cruz Mallía and Santiago Mare in the centre, while Bautista Delguy and Tomás Malanos form part of an exciting backfield trio alongside Julían Domínguez. Delguy – who has represented his country in the 2016 7s World Series – is an elusive open field runner who fields kicks and counterattacks well, and looks to possess a strong kicking game to complement that of Miotti.
Delguy and Malanos are two of five starters who are eligible for next year’s tournament; we have seen above that Ireland field an older side across the park, but the precocious development of eighteen year olds Molina, Kremer and Boronat in the pack may render that potential physical advantage moot. Ireland’s fortunes will likely hinge on whether or not the Argentinian front row can achieve parity at the scrum, and on the ability of Kerins and McPhillips to control a game in the face of an aggressive and combatant back row and a dangerous back three who will punish kicking errors. To reach a first U20 final having lost their star fly-half to injury would be an incredible achievement for Nigel Carolan’s squad, and a testament to the stoic work of the likes of James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Max Deegan in what has become one of the most impressive Irish packs of recent times.