In the dim and distant past, Wales’ autumn schedule would have read as a two-match warm-up, followed by the bleak prospect of an Antipodean double-header that promised little but a pair of courageous beatings. How times have changed.
Now, justified by the agonisingly close defeats to the Wallabies this summer, there is genuine belief that the dragons can spread their wings against the southern hemisphere giants.
However, facing Argentina and Samoa before the fun begins against Australia and New Zealand, Rob Howley’s charges have genuinely tough assignments to pass. First up at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow afternoon are the Pumas, fresh from a first foray into the Rugby Championship, battle-hardened and instilled with belief. This one won’t be easy.
Reasons to back Wales
As always, home will prove very sweet for Sam Warburton and co. Having endured a ghastly time watching their regional sides slump and subsequently struggle to hold onto their key players, the Welsh public should turn out in force. A raucous atmosphere and heaps of passion may prove vital during what promises to be a fraught affair.
Announcing his intention to leave Cardiff Blues for the lucrative shores of France at the end of this season, Jamie Roberts is one man who will strain every sinew for the cause. The hefty centre’s muscle can test even Argentina’s determined defence, but it should also reassure Rhys Priestland and coax the fly-half into form once more.
Up front, the trio of skipper Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones and Matthew Rees should provide set-piece security and, featuring Mike Phillips, James Hook and the red-hot Justin Tipuric, Wales have an extremely strong bench. Just as well, really – the whole squad will need to muck in to during this dogfight.
Reasons to back Argentina
Primarily, it is worth a punt on the visitors because they have comfortably graduated from their perennial tag of plucky underdogs. This summer, Argentina rubbed shoulders with the very best on this planet and emerged with a spate of moral victories. Although a draw against the Springboks in Mendoza provided the only concrete return, they scared the All Blacks and Australia significantly. Neither confidence nor the big stage will be an issue.
At the heart of all that was good for the Pumas throughout the Rugby Championship, captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe wins his 50th cap and will undoubtedly urge his pack, including Leicester loosehead Marcos Ayerza, to pile the pressure on Wales’ forwards – outside of their experienced spine, the rest are largely unproven.
Felipe Contepomi, another wise old head at 35 years old, also returns to bolster the backline following an international sabbatical. Joining mercurial Juan Martin Hernandez and spiky scrum half Martin Landajo, he can add guile to Argentina’s impressive grunt.
Prediction: This could quite easily descend into the ugliest of this weekend’s fixtures but, frankly, neither side will care should they prevail. Languishing in sixth place on the crucial IRB rankings ladder, Wales will be utterly desperate. That mind-set should be enough to see them through – just. Wales by 3.