Argentina for the World Cup semi-finals? Take a deep look into the wild Latin eyes of Agustin Pichot, the Pumas' wonderful captain, and then try to persuade yourself they are not up to it. The South Americans, revelling like never before in the heightened emotional atmosphere of a World Cup, followed their opening-night victory over France by smearing Ireland all over the capital city and bagging themselves an eminently winnable tie with Scotland in six days' time. Oh, by the way: they also condemned the hosts to a meeting with the All Blacks. In Cardiff. That'll teach 'em to strike dodgy deals in the committee room.
This was another riotous occasion in a tournament that began with the Argentines manning the barricades in the northern suburbs of Paris and has since seen an unprecedented uprising of rugby's sans-culottes. Is there a better city on the planet in which to take a liberty or two? Pichot, who plays his club rugby here, can think of nowhere more appropriate. The scrum-half was at his inimitable best yesterday, prodding and probing and picking arguments with all and sundry. He has long been one of the game's outstanding performers. Here, in his final days as an international player, he is mining the experience of a sporting lifetime and bringing the whole damned lot to the surface.
He was not alone in railroading Ireland out of the cup – Rodrigo Roncero and Gonzalo Longo were far too direct and powerful for the Triple Crown holders, and Juan Martin Hernandez did more on one leg than the vaunted trio of Ronan O'Gara, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll managed on six – but when the Pumas look back on a contest that confirmed their place as top-four nation, they will acknowledge Pichot's contribution above all. He set the pace, the tone, the standard. Stronger sides than Ireland would have struggled.
To spare themselves the ignominy of an early flight to Dublin, the Irish required a four-try victory so decisive that the Pumas would be beaten by more than seven points. They started with the usual hiss and roar, punting an early penalty to the corner instead of aiming at the sticks. It was predictable and it was wrong-headed. Only by establishing a winning lead inside an hour would they put themselves in a position to free the likes of O'Driscoll and run the Pumas ragged. By chasing the tries too early, they played into Argentina's hands.
After the frenzy of the opening minutes, in which a variety of nervous South Americans sliced straightforward touch-finders and Felipe Contepomi found himself on the painful end of some rough treatment from the Irish pack, the Pumas settled. Contepomi, still rattled, missed a penalty shot on nine minutes, but almost made amends by following his own up-and-under, hanging back for the bounce and then toe-poking the ball towards the goal-line. Denis Hickie beat him to the touchdown, but Argentina's stellar centre was now nicely in the game and helped to create the position from which Longo fed Pichot off a wheeled scrum, the half-back bouncing away from Eoin Reddan to create a simple finish for Lucas Borges.
O'Gara replied with a penalty awarded against Roncero, who gilded the lily after a stupendous tackle in open field by flicking the ball clear of the ruck with a great hairy hand. There was no disturbing the Argentines' sense of purpose, however. Hernandez, his right thigh heavily strapped, dropped the first of three goals that crowned a performance of exquisite poise and after O'Driscoll scored Ireland's first try on 33 minutes – Manuel Contepomi, the less celebrated of the brothers from Buenos Aires but nobody's idea of a mug, slipped on the turn and landed on his backside – the outside-half restored his side's advantage from the restart before performing a minor miracle to reclaim the ball from his own kick and lay the foundations for Horacio Agulla's score in first-half stoppage time.
After the break, the Puma pack subjected the overrated Irish unit to the full range of indignities. What was more, the likes of D'Arcy and Geordan Murphy were repeatedly stripped of possession on the floor. Murphy did ease the door slightly ajar when O'Gara was given too much space and O'Driscoll cut the optimum angle to open up a route to the line, but the South Americans pulled away in the final quarter with a flurry of points from their two marksmen.
They won the contest for possession wherever it broke out. Roncero and Mario Ledesma tackled like All Black front-rowers and, with Martin Scelzo in an equally ruthless frame of mind, they made a horrible mess of the Irish scrum. At the line-out, Patricio Albacete gained the upper hand on Paul O'Connell; in the loose, Longo and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe made life an utter misery for David Wallace, who came into this tournament with a reputation as one of the world's outstanding breakaways and ended it being substituted.
Try as they might – and Murphy, in particular, tried every stunt in the book – the Six Nations side were trumped. O'Gara, beset by private problems so public that his name had been dragged through the French press for a fortnight, endured the most rotten of afternoons; Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach, felt the humiliation every bit as deeply. Ireland rarely meet expectations away from Dublin. This time, they did not even get within shouting distance of them.
At the fag end of a contest wrapped up long before the final whistle, Ignacio Corleto jogged into his in-goal area to field a kick from O'Driscoll, sidestepped Shane Horgan as if it were the most natural thing in the world and flicked the ball to Hernandez, who sent a clearing kick spiralling to touch.
It was too easy for words, and miles too good for the Irish.
Argentina: I Corleto (Stade Français); L Borges (Stade Français), M Contepomi (Newman), F Contepomi (Leinster), H Agulla (Hindu); JM Hernandez (Stade Français), A Pichot (Racing Metro, capt); R Roncero (Stade Français), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), M Scelzo
Clermont Auvergne), I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), P Albacete (Toulouse), L Ostiglia (Agen), JM Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), G Longo (Clermont Auvergne). Replacements: R Alvarez Kairelis (Perpignan) for I Fernandez Lobbe, 56; M Durand (Champagnat) for Ostiglia, 63; H Senillosa (Hindu) for M Contepomi, 72; O Hasan (Toulouse) for Scelzo, 79; A Basualdo (Asociacion Alumni) for Ledesma, 80.
Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), D Hickie (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster). Replacements: N Best (Ulster) for Wallace, 25-30 & 67; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery, 67; M O'Kelly for O'Callaghan, 67; I Boss (Ulster) for Reddan, 68; G Duffy (Connacht) for Hickie, 72.
Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).