With the Rugby Championship drawing to a close, this clash in Rosario offers an intriguing follow-up to the title-decider at Ellis Park on Saturday. The Argentine side will view this fixture as a massive opportunity to register their first Championship victory, having suffered two near misses in this year’s tournament already. The Wallabies know that they will be up against a fired-up Pumas squad, a fearsome home crowd, and shortcomings in their play that have been brutally exposed in recent weeks. It may not prove to be a classic, but it has the potential to mark a defining point in the development of both these teams.
The hosts proved last week against New Zealand that their forward pack is capable of matching any, perhaps bar South Africa, in world rugby. Their dominance in the scrum was borderline frightening, with the brilliant Juan Figallo at tighthead pulverising veteran Kiwi Tony Woodcock with alarming regularity. His late withdrawal through a neck injury is a blow for Argentina, but in Marcos Ayerza and Juan Pablo Orlandi, they have two very capable starting props. Given the Australians’ relative weakness in this area of the game, there is serious cause for set piece concern in Wallaby ranks. The Pumas back row is equally fierce, with the spirit and abrasiveness of the team very much embodied by captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe on the blindside flank. The young Pablo Matera has enjoyed an excellent tournament, and will relish the challenge of again taking on Michael Hooper at the breakdown. Patricio Albacete turned in a stellar performance last week, and his return has bolstered what was a badly misfiring lineout. Though the backs may appear, at first, less potent than their counterparts from Down Under, fly-half Nicolas Sanchez is playing very well, while his opposite number Quade Cooper is not, and there is experience and guile aplenty in the centre pairing of Felipe Contepomi and Marcelo Bosch.
Australia, for all their quality, are a team in turmoil. They have the world’s top scrum-half in Will Genia, one of the world’s top fly-halves in Quade Cooper, and one of the world’s top outside backs in Israel Folau. However, their play has been sloppy, disjointed and lacking in penetration, and a wider attitude problem among members of the squad was highlighted further by the recent off-field antics of James O’Connor. Michael Hooper will again need more assistance from his back-row colleagues at the breakdown if the Wallabies are to gain parity with the dynamic Pumas trio, but it is hard to see the Australians containing the hosts’ scrum – even minus one of its key components in Figallo. Genia, restored to the starting line-up this week after a fine cameo role against the Springboks at Newlands, has serious game-breaking ability, and his side will look to rely on him or the powerful Folau for a touch of game-altering brilliance.
All Eyes On
With Figallo’s absence from the Pumas pack, there will be added pressure on Leicester Tigers loosehead Marcos Ayerza to deliver the goods at scrum-time once more. He, too, was outstanding in La Plata, and is renowned in the Premiership for his powerful carrying in the loose. Should he come anywhere near replicating last week’s form, Ben Alexander and the Wallaby eight will have plenty to worry about at the set piece.
The talent and intelligence of Will Genia is preferred this week to the more conventional Nic White, who drops to the bench. The scrum-half’s guard must be up to stay clear of marauding Argentine loose forwards around the fringes, and the quality of his kicking play must be high to ensure precious field position for his side. He will quite possibly be operating behind a pack on the back foot, and his ability to exploit gaps, and take the pressure off mercurial long-time partner Quade Cooper will be crucial.
Head To Head: Patricio Albacete vs James Horwill
Two inspirational second-rows who have missed games in the tournament thus far through injury. Albacete’s return to action last week galvanised that failing lineout, and he got through a power of work in the loose, carrying strongly and even beating a defender or two with ball in hand. Horwill is a captain who leads very much by example, and his dismay at the state in which his side finds itself is palpable. He and Ben Mowen will look to nullify the aerial threat of Albacete, and match his willingness to put his team on the front foot with powerful runs – a trait that has also set Horwill apart from many of his compatriots in recent times.
Should Argentina fail to break their Rugby Championship duck this weekend, it must be regarded as a huge missed opportunity. Though the Wallabies remain an accomplished side, the Pumas should enjoy dominance in the forwards, and a simple, smart game-plan should see them through. Winning the battle at the breakdown will be as key as ever, as will starving the likes of Genia, Folau and Adam Ashley-Cooper of the possession and opportunities with which they can flourish. While the Argentine backs are perhaps not as scintillating as many of their contemporaries, their tight five prowess and the boot of Nicolas Sanchez should finally get them off the mark. Argentina by 5.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images