LONDON, 19 Oct - Ireland made a strong recovery in Cardiff against Argentina in their Rugby World Cup 2015 quarter-final, although it was not enough to stop the Pumas as Joe Schmidt's side missed their chance to make the RWC semi-finals for the sixth time.
But don't be fooled by Ireland's gallant comeback. Statistics and history show the match result was virtually decided by Argentina's superb burst of scoring in the first 10 minutes at the Millennium Stadium.
"The game slipped away from us in the first 15 minutes, and ran away from us in the last 15 minutes," was the review of Ireland head coach Schmidt, but in fact it was just the first 10 - when Ireland were 14-0 down - that all but ended their chances of victory.
It is very rare for test teams to recover 10-point deficits and win matches, let alone 14-point ones. Ireland's last big comeback for victory was against France in Paris during the 2000 Six Nations, when they overturned a score of 19-7 after 54 minutes to win 27-25 thanks to a famous Brian O'Driscoll hat-trick. In RWC matches, Ireland have never recovered a deficit of more than three points to win.
Looking at the picture more broadly gives a much clearer view of the trend. In 323 RWC matches before the start of the Ireland-Argentina quarter-final, just 14 teams had managed to come back from a deficit of 10 or more points in a match to win - a success rate of just 4.3 per cent. That statistic is only slightly higher, at 5.6 per cent, in RWC knockout matches.
Ten points, then, is something of a 'magic margin' for teams in test rugby. On Sunday, Argentina arrived at the mark as fast as they had ever done in a RWC match. In 34 previous RWC matches, the Pumas had only ever reached double figures once within the first 10 minutes of a match - in the 43-8 win against Romania in 2011.
Both of Argentina's tries had aspects of opportunism and were finished with impressive skill, but the opportunities were carefully constructed.
The first came from a powerful run by flanker Pablo Matera, who was quick enough to stand up and then run around Devin Toner and power through the combined tackles of Mike Ross and Ian Madigan to get his team within five metres of Ireland's 22.
Once they had forced Ireland into scrambling their defensive alignment, Argentina moved the ball quickly to the other side of the field where Santiago Cordero ran a neat outside arc on Dave Kearney, drawing Rob Kearney into a cover tackle. Cordero passed the ball just before contact to Matias Moroni (pictured above), who was then able to run in without a tackle on him. Nicolas Sanchez converted for a 7-0 lead inside four minutes.
Seven minutes later, Argentina struck again. After a lineout on halfway, they played through five ruck phases that went from one side of the field to the other. With Ireland's defence spread, Argentina quickly identified a defensive mismatch with front-rowers Rory Best and Mike Ross on the fringe of the central defence. Matera and lock Guido Petti were used to hold Best and Ross in place and allow the quartet of backs behind them to attack Ireland's wide defenders on the outside.
Using Petti as a dummy, Matera passed out the back for Joaquin Tuculet to attack 'around the corner' of Ireland's central defence. Tuculet targeted Ian Madigan, with Sanchez and Cordero outside him to make the overlap, while Juan Imhoff tracked the attack with a supporting inside line. Cordero got away down the right and then kicked ahead and inside when Conor Murray made it across to cover. At full pace in support, Imhoff was able to beat turning full-back Rob Kearney to the ball and touch down for Argentina's second try. Sanchez converted for a 14-0 lead inside 11 minutes.
If the match wasn't over then, two minutes later Sanchez kicked a penalty to make it 17-0 to Argentina, which officially made it their best ever start to any RWC match. That Ireland came back, and twice reduced the deficit to just three points in the second half, kept their hopes of victory alive, but Argentina pulled away in the final 12 minutes with two more tries to eventually win by 23 points.
The match actually followed a remarkably similar pattern to other matches where one team achieves the 10-point 'magic margin'. The most common pattern for these matches is that one team that establishes the margin, the other fights back to within a score (sometimes even taking a small lead) before the team that established the lead moves away towards the end of the match and increases their winning total.
When people speak of teams that "gave themselves too much to do", this is what they are talking about. England's RWC 2015 Pool A match against Australia followed a similar pattern, with England recovering 10 of a 17-point deficit, before Australia moved away to win more comfortably in the end.
It is important to note that teams which establish leads of 10 or more points do not always win tests, at the RWC or elsewhere (as proved by England in their 28-25 defeat by Wales at RWC 2015, having led 16-6, 19-9 and 22-12). But if such a lead is established, the accumulated statistics of hundreds of historical matches say the chances of winning are massively increased. Argentina's ascent to the RWC semi-finals is the latest proof of this fact.