The All Blacks will arrive in La Plata eager to complete a professional job, and perhaps more importantly, emerge relatively unscathed ahead of next week’s crucial clash with the Springboks at Ellis Park. For the Pumas, the fixture represents another opportunity to build upon some impressive performances in recent weeks, and their forwards in particular will be savouring the prospect of going up against the World Champions once more.
Santiago Phelan has made six changes to the side that were edged out by Australia in Perth. The pack has a typically bruising look to it, emphasised by the return of stalwart second row Patricio Albacete, and Marcelo Bosch’s restoration to the number thirteen jersey adds potency in attack. The Pumas are creeping yet closer to a first Rugby Championship victory, having lost by just a single point to the Wallabies, and will feel that they let slip another golden opportunity to claim that maiden win. Their scrum is more than a match for the Kiwis, and their lineout will be considerably bolstered by Albacete’s return, but hooker Eusebio Guinazu will have to improve drastically upon the poor throwing he has delivered for much of the Championship.
In the backs, the Pumas do not come close to matching their illustrious opponents, but fly-half Nicolas Sanchez has proved himself a quality operator, and can put his side in the right areas of the pitch to cause the All Blacks problems.
Bereft once more of captain Richie McCaw, the Kiwi back row trio of Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Kieran Read will be braced for another hugely physical battle at the breakdown. The All Blacks forwards must weather the inevitably passionate drive early on from their Argentine counterparts, and quickly nullify the threat posed by the marauding loose forwards.
Their backline is comfortably the best in world rugby, even minus the great Dan Carter, and if the game breaks up or becomes overly expansive, it could spell disaster for the Pumas as it did in this fixture a year ago.
All Eyes On
Veteran loosehead prop Tony Woodcock became only the fifth All Black to reach the 100-cap milestone against Australia in Round Two of the tournament. He will need to use every ounce of his strength, guile and nous in the scrummage to combat Puma tighthead Juan Figallo, who has impressed in the Championship thus far. Figallo arguably got the better of Woodcock when the two sides met in Hamilton, and the Kiwi may feel he has a score to settle on that front.
Another experienced campaigner, Patricio Albacete, returns to action for Argentina this weekend, having recovered from an injury sustained just minutes into his side’s opening Rugby Championship fixture. The second row’s influence and co-ordination at the lineout has been sorely missed, as the Puma set-piece has misfired time and time again. He will need to be on top of his game to match All Black second row pairing Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, who have been in fine form throughout the tournament.
Head-to-head: Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe v Liam Messam
Argentine captain Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe lining up against Liam Messam on the blindside flank is a truly mouth-watering proposition. Messam returned from injury to face the Springboks two weeks ago, and acquitted himself well against a monstrous back row. Lobbe is a talismanic figure for the Pumas, and his sheer physicality and work-rate is virtually unparalleled in the sport. The hosts must at the very least gain parity with the Kiwis in the back-row-battle to have any chance of emerging victorious, and Lobbe and co are once again faced with a huge challenge at the breakdown. The Pumas are likely to strive to keep the game tight, promising a brutal forward duel, with these two behemoths at the forefront.
Playing Argentina on their home turf is often a totally different proposition to facing them on their travels. In the intimidating environment of La Plata, the Pumas can flourish, and their dynamic and powerful pack can cause serious damage. They will surely be relishing another crack at the world’s best, and will certainly turn in a spirited performance. That said, they do not yet have the big-match nous or the quality to contain the All Blacks, and are likely to be consigned gallant losers once more. New Zealand by 15.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images