New Zealand will be looking to make it 14 wins on the bounce when they host a revived Argentina at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday.
The All Blacks haven’t lost since that 27-19 defeat to Australia in Sydney last year and recently wrapped up the Bledisloe Cup once again.
Now they are pushing to move one step closer to doing something similar with the Rugby Championship, and know that another bonus-point win and victory over South Africa next weekend would see them have one hand firmly on the silverware they lost to the Wallabies 13 months ago.
It is hard to envisage anything other than an All Blacks title when October rolls around, but there is the small matter of seeing off the Pumas first, who have regularly been a tough nut to crack for Steve Hansen. The 26-16 win at Wembley last year in the Rugby World Cup could have gone either way.
Argentina will no doubt have been buoyed by their recent win against South Africa but ending New Zealand’s winning run is surely too much of an ask for a squad that is missing stars like Marcos Ayerza, Marcelo Bosch and Juan Imhoff. Furthermore, Manuel Montero is also injured.
They face a New Zealand team who are doing the basics incredibly well, and while handling and passing to targets in front of the man should be a given for any Test side, the fact that from 1 to 23 they all demonstrate this with ease finished off the Wallabies in comprehensive style.
Beauden Barrett is continuing on from his Super Rugby form while Sam Cane has upped his game with the pressure coming on from Ardie Savea waiting patiently on the bench. What is frightening is that Akira Ioane has been outstanding as an openside in this season’s Mitre 10 Cup. The same can be said of Jordan Taufua, which shows the depth New Zealand has – something the Lions will witness. But that’s for another day.
Their opponents also possess a strong back row unit and that’s where this game could be won and lost. Facundo Isa, Javier Ortega Desio and Pablo Matera look to be Argentina’s long-term trio and with Juan Manuel Leguizamón not involved this week, this is a big chance for Desio.
Argentina will be beaten if they play an expansive style similar to last year’s Rugby World Cup but what they do possess is a strong pack and two intelligent game managers in Nicolás Sánchez and Juan Martín Hernández. Adopting a smart, territorial style is their best option but even that’s unlikely to stop New Zealand from winning, gaining growing momentum as Warren Gatland no doubt watches on from the stands.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: Expect another near perfect display from Ben Smith at the back as his combination with Israel Dagg gets another chance on Saturday. Both are in excellent form and rotated positions in Rounds 1 and 2. Steve Hansen has stuck with the latter combination though this week as Smith remains at 15, looking to feed Dagg on the right. Another night being secure under the high ball and lethal on the counter awaits.
For Argentina: Keeping the All Blacks within touching distance for as long as possible will be the immediate aim for los Pumas and skipper Agustín Creevy. They have been more than a match for New Zealand over the years and haven’t been comprehensively beaten since 2012, so they can enter confident under their talismanic hooker. Creevy’s inspirational leadership is going to be key and he will relish this challenge.
Head-to-head: Without doubt the star of Argentina’s recent games has been Facundo Isa. The 22-year-old has been destructive with ball in hand and also defensively and will be looking to inflict the same damage on the All Blacks this weekend. He goes up against former World Player of the Year, Kieran Read, who of course now has the captaincy of his Test team. Both high quality number eights – this will be good.
Team news: The New Zealand matchday 23 features just three changes from the team that secured the Bledisloe Cup in Wellington. Ryan Crotty returns to inside centre, with Anton Lienert-Brown moving to the bench while Codie Taylor and Luke Romano are also among the replacements.
Argentina have made three changes to their starting line-up with the only backline alteration seeing Matías Moroni come in for wing Manuel Montero who injured himself in Salta. In the engine room, Javier Ortega Desio replaces veteran back-row Juan Manuel Leguizamón at openside flank while Guido Petti takes over from the injured Tomás Lavanini in the second-row. Agustín Creevy again captains the Pumas from hooker.