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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Felipe turns up the Latin heat

Former Puma and Leinster star Contepomi believes battle will be won at the set piece

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt

They called him 'Latino Heat' for his fiery character at Leinster.

Felipe Contepomi was the man who largely kept Jonathan Sexton from the public eye until that fateful 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final at Croke Park.

The Argentinian's knee gave way and Sexton gave a master class to tear away Munster's dream of a third European crown in four years.

Now, Sexton is at the pinnacle of the sport, still battling an adductor muscle injury to make it back for what is left of Ireland's World Cup.

Contepomi has put his medical degree from The Royal College of Surgeons to use, while keeping an interest in the game the 38-year-old graced with unbridled passion and intensity.

He is not gone long enough to forget the Leinster players he played with and the Irish players he encountered in the various Inter-provincial match-ups.

He knows all about their quality and The Pumas do too.

"They know that Ireland is the best team in Europe," claimed Contepomi.

"They know they have a massive challenge in front of them.

"I know they play the best teams in the world twice a year for the last four years in The Rugby Championship.

Not easy

"But you are talking about the best team in Europe. It's not easy."

The man from Buenos Aires refuses to see any significance in The Pumas 2-1 lead over Ireland from previous World Cups.

"I don't think so," he said, about his countrymen. "That history has been in 99', 03' and 07' and many of those players are not here.

"These young lads, some of them probably haven't even seen the 99 World Cup. I

"I don't know if they know the history at all. It is a new generation."

The prospect of knockout rugby has a way of concentrating the mind. There are no second chances for one of the countries after Sunday.

"It's a huge game because it's the quarter-final. It's done or gone," he imparted.

"I think it will be an intense game. Both teams are playing well. Both are playing a similar style of rugby.

"Whoever can win the set-piece battle at the scrum and the lineout will have a better chance."

It all comes back to the forwards even for the former out-half and centre.

The Irish have always had to deal with the question mark over their strength in depth.

It is why coach Joe Schmidt made it his mission to have, at least, two international quality options for each position when he took over his post in 2013.

The best example of the progress made came from the impact of Ireland's reserve front row against France.

Former Waikato Chiefs captain Nathan White is beginning to show his value at tight-head.

Late to international rugby, the New Zealand-born 34 year-old has recovered from injury to play his part.

"It's a big weekend for Irish rugby," he said.

"If we get through this one it's the furthest we've ever been so there's plenty of focus around, plenty of drive in the lads."

In fact, Ireland is the only nation in the last eight that has never been to the World Cup semi-final.

They have made it as far as the quarter-final five times and five times their journey ended there.

Ireland have claimed back-to-back Six Nations titles and have beaten Los Pumas on the last five occasions.

The nations have met for fifteen internationals since their first in 1990. Ireland have an overall record of ten wins against five defeats.

The problem is Argentina have been something of a hoodoo on the biggest stage.

Even the one-point victory in 2003 was fraught with tension and the fear of failure.

There was even a period when the relationship deteriorated from a mutual dislike to an undisguised hatred of each other.

No wonder Juan Martin Hernandez has talked the clash up as an "El Clasico" to rank alongside that of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Paul O'Connell's likely replacement Donnacha Ryan has always played the part of the dutiful Munster man with a degree of self-deprication and intelligence. He is a man worth listening to.

Massive

"There is a massive amount of excitement ahead of the weekend, but we have to focus on the jobs we are going to do on the pitch.

"Emotions can run high, but we have to be focused.

"We are delighted to be in this position, but we are not getting too far ahead of ourselves."

The atmosphere created by the Ireland supporters for the French match was second-to-none. Literally.

"I think everybody that I've spoken to from players to neutral people who were in the ground said they had never seen an atmosphere like it in The Millennium," said Team Manager Mick Kearney.

"That includes the Irish matches, the Heineken Cup finals and even Welsh matches. It was incredible support, incredible volume.

"I don't think anyone has ever heard 'Ireland's Call' sung with such passion and gusto.

"It really was spine-tingling," he said in earnest.

The sheer numbers and willingness to grow hoarse will make Sunday's quarter-final even better than a home quarter-final.

"The players appreciate the support, the efforts, the expense that people have gone to, to get to Cardiff by air, sea and rail.

"There's no doubt it acted as a 16th man or a 24th man."

Now, Ireland just have to do it all over again.

Ireland v Argentina, Sunday, live tv3 (1.0)

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