New Zealand vs Argentina | AMI Stadium | Friday 17 July | 09:35
The abbreviated version of the Castle Rugby Championship kicks off with an encounter between the All Blacks and Los Pumas in Christchurch this Friday. The New Zealanders and their Argentine counterparts have both drawn the short end of the straw when it comes to this year’s fixture list. Both sides will only host a solitary home game due to the brief nature of this year’s tournament. With both Australia and South Africa to play away from home, the All Blacks will want to walk away from Friday’s encounter with five points in the bag. Their opponents will want to return to South America with their pride intact and something to play for when the Australians arrive in Argentina next weekend. With the World Cup just around the corner both coaches will be trying to find the ideal equilibrium of testing combinations and blooding new players whilst remaining as competitive as possible.
To Win (80mins)
New Zealand 1/25
New Zealand (-24.5) 9/10
Argentina (+24.5) 9/10
The All Blacks will be looking to kick start their title defence with a bonus point victory over the Pumas this weekend. Although coach Steve Hansen has opted to rest a few of his stalwarts who played in the Super Rugby final, he still has a wealth of experience and talent in his match-day 23. Hansen will look to continue testing possible backup combinations for the Rugby World Cup as well as give some of New Zealand’s top Super Rugby performers a go at international level. The Kiwis have never tasted defeat at the hands of the Argentines and will likely extend this record on Saturday.
With the All Black’s opening their World Cup campaign against Friday’s opponents, coach Steve Hansen may be holding a few of his cards close. His team announcement seems to add some substance to this theory, with key men Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Conrad Smith, Aaron Smith and Ben Smith all missing this clash. Hansen has reiterated that the reasoning behind leaving these players out is their lengthy Super Rugby campaigns. However I suspect that if they were taking on the Wallabies or Springboks then these big name players would have been involved. Despite Hansen’s cloak and dagger approach to team selection he has still managed to field a side capable of striking fear into the heart of most international teams.
His front row consists of veterans Kevin Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, who have over 100 test caps apiece for New Zealand. They will be joined by Owen Franks and will be tasked with nullifying the Pumas’ much hyped scrum. Skipper Richie McCaw will be looking to make life unbearable for the Argentines in the loose and will be joined in his quest by Crusaders team mate Kieran Reid as well as Blues wrecking ball Jerome Kaino. In the backline, TJ Perenara gets a bash at staking a claim at being Aaron Smith’s understudy for the remainder of the year whilst Dan Carter continues in the pivot role after an impressive kicking display against Samoa. There is also a debut for Highlanders flyer Waisake Naholo, who was in devastating form throughout the Highlanders’ victorious Super 15 campaign. One man who won’t be in contention for the All Blacks this weekend is Chiefs first five eighth Aaron Cruden, who seems to be more at home in a pub than on a rugby field nowadays.
This will be Los Pumas’ fourth appearance in the Rugby Championship. Although a spirited bunch, the men from South America have been perineal wooden-spoonists since their debut in 2012. Their crowning achievement in the tournament to date came against the Wallabies in last year’s final fixture, where they came back from a fourteen-point first half deficit to eventually run out 21-17 victors in Mendoza. Although coach Daniel Hourcade would like nothing more than to build on last year’s inaugural victory, he, like his South African and Australasian counterparts, will be looking at this year’s Championship as an opportunity to build for the World Cup. Hourcade has signaled this intention by leaving some of his elder statesmen at home and taking a few fringe players across to New Zealand. Amongst the absentees are veteran full back Juan Martin Hernandez, who has been handed a well-deserved rest after his exploits for club side Toulon. Despite missing some of his established names, Hourcade has announced an experienced side, with the majority of his match-day 23 compiling of players plying their trade in the European leagues.
Argentina will be hoping that their forward pack can give the All Blacks a few headaches at set piece time, particularly in the scrums which the Pumas pride themselves on. They will look to hooker and stand-in skipper Agustin Creevy along with his front row partners Marcos Ayerza and Ramiro Herrera to really put the pressure on the Kiwi pack from the first utterance of “crouch” out of referee Craig Joubert’s mouth. Elsewhere in the forward battle Argentine veteran flanker Juan Martin Fernandez is tasked with trying to contain the All Blacks contingent of loose forwards whose natural habitat is the breakdown. In terms of the backs, flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez will look to control the game with his measured right boot, while outside centre Marcelo Bosch will be key to nullifying the physical Kiwi centre pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill-Williams
VERDICT: Argentina (+24.5) 9/10
They may be playing the defending World Champions in the heart of All Black country, but this Argentine side has enough quality and experience, particularly in the forward pack, to keep the score within the +24.5 point margin.