Two rounds of The Rugby Championship are in the books, and currently New Zealand and South Africa are sitting comfortably atop the table, with two wins apiece, and look set to clash in a potentially ‘winner takes all’ game at the end of the tournament. That being said, Argentina could yet derail the All Blacks’ title challenge, especially if they can beat the odds and earn a surprising win in Hamilton this weekend.
The All Blacks can’t allow themselves to be complacent in this game, as their goal will be to match South Africa’s achievement of registering a winning bonus point at home against the Pumas. This is a realistic goal for New Zealand, and despite the improved performance from Argentina in the second round of the championship, it is a result which New Zealand should feel comfortable about achieving. If the All Blacks can outsmart the Argentineans at the set piece, and overpower them at the breakdown, then the New Zealand backs could potentially cause havoc against their opposite numbers. Ben Smith has been in fine try-scoring form so far in the tournament, whilst Conrad Smith has continued to be the glue which holds the talented All Black back line together, and both could be in line for big nights at Waikato Stadium on Saturday.
After being decimated by the Springboks in the opening round, the Pumas bounced back well in Mendoza, and were in reality unlucky to not come away with anything more than a losing bonus point. If Argentina are to stand any chance on Saturday, they will not only have to surpass their performance in Mendoza two weeks ago, but also find an extra gear or two. Key to the Pumas’ chances will be challenging and disrupting the All Blacks at arguably the strongest area of their game, the breakdown, and ensuring that New Zealand’s more powerful and clinical backs are not given the quick ball they are so often delivered.
All Eyes On
Argentinean fullback Juan Martin Hernandez returns to action after missing the last game against South Africa with an injury, and is one of the few players in the Pumas line-up capable of cutting open the All Blacks defence. Hernandez has all the ability to be one of the most potent attacking threats in the game, but he is also a mercurial player, and you are rarely sure which player is going to turn up from game to game. The fullback could help Argentina record one of the greatest victories in the history of the game, or he could equally scupper their opportunity as soon as it begins.
New Zealand have had their fair share of injury problems at fly-half so far this tournament, but the return of Dan Carter to the starting XV will be a cause for rejoice, especially with the Springboks on the very near horizon. Carter will have to play well to help New Zealand see off the challenge of the Pumas, but it also allows him a game to shake off the rust, before a fiery encounter with South Africa just eight days away. Eyes will be on Carter, albeit perhaps not for his usual playmaking ability, but just to make sure he emerges from the game unscathed.
Head-to-head: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe vs Richie McCaw
The return of talismanic captain Lobbe to the Argentina side is a significant boost to the Pumas’ slim hopes, and they will need him to help carry the team, much in the same way Sergio Parisse has done in some of Italy’s most famous victories. Lobbe will be ably assisted by back row colleagues Juan Manuel Leguizamon, and the talented, but fairly unproven, Pablo Matera, but if Argentina are to go head-to-head with the big boys of New Zealand, they will know they need a career-defining performance from their captain. It goes without saying, but McCaw will lead the All Blacks’ back row unit against Lobbe, and even if the score line proves to be rather one-sided come Saturday, the contest between two of the games’ most savvy and effective players, should certainly be one worth tuning in for.
Despite turning in a praise-worthy performance in Mendoza in the last round, playing in Hamilton will be a different kettle of fish, as will be the in-form New Zealand side. I don’t expect New Zealand to post a cricket score like South Africa did in the opening round, but they should earn the winning bonus point they’re looking for. New Zealand by 25.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)