Argentina were very much the better team on the day as they ran in four tries and Nicolas Sanchez booted 23 points to bring Ireland’s Rugby World Cup campaign to a hugely deflating end.
Argentina added a 2015 quarter-final win to their two previous World Cup victories over Ireland from 1999 and 2007, as Joe Schmidt’s men were comprehensively beaten at a packed-out Millennium Stadium.
The Pool D winners were made to pay for a sluggish start, going 17-0 down inside the opening quarter hour with Matias Moroni and Juan Imhoff scorching over for early tries. The loss of Tommy Bowe to injury was another setback for Ireland.
Outhalf Nicolas Sanchez had a smashing day with the boot, landing four conversions and five penalties, and his assured place-kicking added to the Pumas’ very obvious confidence.
Ireland gained some momentum during Ramiro Herrera’s sin-bin period, outscoring the South Americans 10-3 with Bowe’s replacement Luke Fitzgerald weaving in from the left for a cracking 25th minute try which Ian Madigan converted.
Although Madigan hit the post with a penalty on the half hour, an improved second quarter at least gave Schmidt’s side a foothold in the game as they went off at the interval trailing 20-10.
Fitzgerald excelled again when he made a fantastic line break, three minutes after the restart, and sent the supporting Jordi Murphy over to the left of the posts. Madigan’s conversion closed the gap to three points and Ireland were right back in the hunt.
Upping the intensity and their physicality up front where Argentina had dominated the breakdown during the first half, Ireland were on the front foot as Madigan soon cancelled out another Sanchez three-pointer.
There were heroic performances from the Ulster forward trio of Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry, in particular, with Fitzgerald adding much-needed dynamism to the backline.
However, the Ireland number 10 pushed a long range penalty to the right and wide and the Pumas, showing impressive power and pace, came to the fore during the final quarter as tiredness evidently became a factor for the men in green.
The absence of the injured Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Jared Payne, Jonathan Sexton and suspended flanker Sean O’Brien was keenly felt, but it is debatable whether that quintet would have been able to influence the result given Argentina’s super-charged form today.
With the scoreboard showing 23-20, Sanchez punished Devin Toner for a high tackle and following an uncharacteristic fumble at a scrum by Conor Murray, Argentina used possession to work numbers on the left, and Joaquin Tuculet’s precise finish in the corner gave them a crucial seven-pointer.
Daniel Hourcade’s well-drilled team added a final gloss as the elusive Imhoff, breaking away from the Kearney brothers, completed his brace in devastating fashion. Man-of-the-match Sanchez topped off his contribution with the conversion and a subsequent penalty.
Ireland’s frustrating day, which leaves them still waiting to win a RWC knockout game, was summed by a Donnacha Ryan knock-on as they pushed for a consolation score in the dying seconds.
Jamie Heaslip, who captained Ireland in O’Connell’s absence, said afterwards: “It’s obviously very disappointing to lose in such a big game. We didn’t help ourselves at the start. We fought back and got it back to three points, but we gave ourselves too much to do.
“I’d like to thank everyone who has supported us here in the stadium and throughout the World Cup. This is a special group of players and a special group of fans and we’d just like to say thanks for the support.
“Argentina play an expansive game and they stretched us. Fair play to them, they took their scores very well. We got back into it but they took their opportunities to kick on and won well in the end.”