This is a huge game for both sides, but for very different reasons. For the hosts, it really is a must-win fixture – of that there is little doubt. For the visitors, it represents a great opportunity to bridge the gap between near misses and claiming a major Southern Hemisphere scalp. Each team has markedly different styles of rugby – though one could argue the Australians were bereft of any discernible game plan in their defeat to the Springboks last round – and their meeting should prove a fascinating encounter.
Ewen McKenzie has stuck with largely the same pack as were monstered by their South African counterparts in Round 3, perhaps hinting at the lack of depth at his disposal in that area. The introduction of Ben Alexander at tighthead marks the sole change up front. With the Argentine forwards flexing their muscles against the All Blacks last week, the battle in the scrum and at the breakdown is one from which the home side do not seem likely to emerge triumphant.
Of course, the benching of stand-in captain Will Genia, widely and rightly regarded as the world’s top scrum-half, has only served to add fuel to the fire of controversy and discontent currently blazing through the Wallaby ranks. This is a crucial match for Australia, and one must question the wisdom and logic in dropping a player of such quality, particularly given that his replacement – Nic White – is likely to be operating behind a pack on the back foot. Genia has not been enjoying anything like his best form of late, but in a game where his nous, experience and ability to function under pressure may prove the difference, the decision to omit him seems questionable. White is no mug, and has benefited from an excellent season with the Brumbies, but whether he is able to influence the game, or link with mercurial half-back partner Quade Cooper, in the same way as Genia is highly doubtful.
The absence of the scrum-half or injured skipper James Horwill means the duty of captaincy falls on the shoulders of Ben Mowen. Arguably playing out of position at number 8, and yet to recapture his excellent form of the Lions test series, this may prove to be a hefty burden for a man capped only six times.
The Pumas have bounced back from a humiliating sixty-point defeat to South Africa in the opening round to perform stirringly in the games that followed. In reality, they missed a huge opportunity to avenge that thumping a week later in Mendoza.
They boast a typically fearsome pack, with props Marcos Ayerza and Juan Figallo impressing in the scrum against their much-vaunted All Black counterparts. Captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe returned from injury last week, and turned in an inspirational performance, leading from the front with some bruising carries and physicality around the tackle area. Indeed, one look at tomorrow’s Argentine back row suggests Michael Hooper will yet again be facing an arduous uphill struggle at the breakdown.
Santiago Phelan has made five changes to last week’s starting lineup, with injury ruling out Gonzalo Camacho. Hooker Eusebio Guinazu’s throwing was poor in Hamilton, and his indiscipline again earned him a yellow card. He is benched this week in favour of Agustin Creey. Though the centre-pairing of Felipe Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi is one of vast experience, it was somewhat surprising to see Marcelo Bosch dropped from the match-day squad altogether after some tidy showings. Nonetheless, this is a very capable backline. Nicolas Sanchez looks to be hitting great form at fly-half, and the Pumas have a mercurial talent of their own in the form of full-back Juan Martin Hernandez.
All Eyes On
With Genia’s omission causing such a stir, many will be focussing on the performance of the man who replaces him this week. As with any scrum-half competing for a starting berth alongside such an illustrious talent, Nic White has had to be patient. From his substitute appearances, he has endeavoured to inject some pace and energy into a faltering Wallaby backline, but has been unable to make much impact in games where his side tend to be well beaten prior to his introduction. This game marks a huge test of his capabilities, facing a hugely formidable Argentine back row that will relish the opportunity to unleash hell upon him.
Puma tighthead Juan Figallo gave veteran Kiwi Tony Woodcock plenty to think about in Hamilton, and he will surely fancy his chances of gaining the upper hand over James Slipper in the scrum this week. Although he is not the most mobile prop, he performs his key roles very effectively, and was fairly busy in the loose against New Zealand, posting a solid tackle count.
Head to Head: Michael Hooper vs Pablo Matera
Hooper has been fighting a lonely battle at the breakdown throughout the Championship thus far. With precious few of his team-mates and fellow loose forwards regarded as breakdown specialists, the openside has been left toiling alone in the pursuit of turnovers and penalties. He will need to be on his game against a Puma trio of Matera, Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Leguizamon – all of whom are extremely dynamic, and capable of doing some serious damage at the breakdown. The outcome of this key battle will provide their kicker with chances to put points on the board, and may go a long way to deciding the victors of this clash.
Australia desperately need a win, and even under current circumstances, losing at home to Argentina is wholly unacceptable. The Pumas look likely to dominate in the tight, and they have a side with far more ball-carrying, gain-line-breaching options than their hosts. Leadership, too, may be problematic for the Wallabies minus their two most influential figures, and facing an Argentine side with the experienced Contepomi, Fernandez Lobbe and Leguizamon. The Wallaby backline remains a very dangerous one, but it has looked utterly bereft of ideas and go-forward thus far, besides some moments of Folau magic. If the Pumas keep their discipline, and take their chances, they will record their first Rugby Championship victory. Argentina by 4.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images