2018 Rugby Championships
New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday 8th September 2018
Venue: Trafalgar Park, Nelson
Kick-off: 19:35 local, 08:35 BST, 07:35 GMT, 09:35 SA Time
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Nic Berry (Australia)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)
During the last week or so, the New Zealand media has been talking up the Argentinean challenge in the upcoming Rugby Championships Test scheduled for Saturday. They have made much of the challenge offered by the Puma forwards, as well as the “new spirit” and “focus” of the Argentineans under Mario Ledesma’s tutelage.
We have been told that All Black boss Steve Hansen is wary of the threat posed by the Pumas under Ledesma. Hansen has already identified ways in which Ledesma’s experience has helped him to improve the Pumas. He has spoken of the old style Pumas’ strategy of taking the ball up the middle through the forwards having been extended to a wider game that utilises the backs. He has indicated that he expects the Pumas to take a another step up from their Super Rugby Jaguares game, and that they are rapidly developing into a challenging outfit, even for his world champion All Blacks.
All of this, of course, is to be expected.
Nobody is going to publish an opinion that suggests that the All Blacks will wallop the Argentineans. A statement like that could possibly deter spectators from attending the match; except for the most jingoistic of Kiwis, the average spectator wants to see a game of competitive rugby, not a predetermined whitewash.
Amongst international coaches, only Eddie Jones can be relied upon to make derogatory statements about his opponents, and Steve Hansen is not cut from the same cloth at all. He will always talk up the challenge his team faces and shows respect for the opponents.
Mario Ledesma will, undoubtedly, know the enormity of the task that he and his men face in Nelson on Saturday against the All Blacks.
Yet, the Argentinean coach will believe that his team does have a chance!
After all, it was he that brought the Jaguares to New Zealand a scant four months ago, and won, not one, but two games! It was he that turned the perennial cannon-fodder Jaguares into playoff contenders in Super Rugby this year, with a run of seven consecutive victories including those special wins over the Blues in Auckland, and then, impressively, beating the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium.
There will be a quiet confidence in the Puma camp as they prepare for the challenge that faces that at Trafalgar Park.
This game will provides answers to a number of questions.
How good are the 2018 All Backs? Their two run-away wins against the Australians and the series victory over the French did not really answer this question. The win over France was aided and abetted by some atrocious officiating by the referees and their woe-begotten assistants. We do not know if Australia was a true test of the All Black form or not – the jury will consider the state of Aussie rugby after this weekend and their game against the Springboks.
How far have the Pumas come under Ledesma? A solitary win over the Springboks is not a real measure of their current situation, especially after dismal performances against Wales and Scotland in the mid-year.
How good is the All Black squad depth? Resting 6 regular starting players would be a risky option for most international coaches, but the All Blacks have so much talent at their disposal………. Or have they?
We will have some answers after this game.
The All Black coach Steve Hansen has made a number of changes to his team for their Rugby Championship match against Argentina at Trafalgar Park in Nelson on Saturday.
The most notable change is the inclusion of Crusaders star Richie Mo’unga at flyhalf. Beauden Barrett gets a complete rest after his superb performances against the Wallabies.
Mo’unga will make his first Test start, while scrumhalf Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi set to make his Test debut off the bench.
Nehe Milner-Skudder returns to the Test side for the first time since October last year.
Milner-Skudder was injured in the All Blacks Test in Cape Town in last year’s Rugby Championship and returns on the right wing.
Along with Mo’unga and Tahuriorangi, other changes in the matchday 23 see TJ Perenara named to start at halfback and Ben Smith move back to fullback.
Amongst the forwards, Karl Tu’inukuafe starts at loosehead prop, replacing the injured Joe Moody, and Tim Perry comes into the reserves.
In the second row, Scott Barrett starts, with Sam Whitelock moving to the bench.
Shannon Frizell will make his second Test start at blindside flank, Ardie Savea is at seven, with Luke Whitelock coming into the reserves. Sam Cane is rested after his concussion injury.
Hansen has resisted the temptation to start Ryan Crotty in the midfield, despite the centre having been cleared to play after his most recent concussion. Jack Goodhue and Ngani Laumape will be the starting midfield. , Jordie Barrett is also being rested, which means that Scott Barrett is only one of the three brothers to feature this weekend.
Damian McKenzie, and Anton Lienert-Brown continue to feature as the late-game impact players off the bench.
Argentina have made four changes to their side for the Rugby Championship clash against the All Blacks in Nelson on Saturday.
Jeronimo de La Fuente replaces Bautista Ezcurra in the centres, while scrum-half Martin Landajo starts for the first time since the Scotland international in June, with Tomas Cubelli on the bench and Gonzalo Bertranou dropping out of the matchday 23 altogether.
In the loose trio, Pablo Matera drops to the reserves, earning a well-deserved break after having recently brought up his 50th appearance for the Pumas. Tomas Lezana comes in to take his place. Up front, Garcia Botta comes in for Juan Figallo, who has returned to England to play for his club Saracens.
Argentina are looking for a first ever win over New Zealand after snapping an 11-match losing streak in the Rugby Championship with victory over the Springboks in Mendoza a fortnight ago. They are quietly confident that they have found their game and focus in much the same way as did their feeder team, the Jaguares.
Coach Ledesma worked at improving the Jaguares and, consequently, the Pumas approach to the game, adding some dimension to their game with more subtlety in the outside channels.
There is one small worry.
Their new approach is built around the performance of their flyhalf, Nicolas Sanchez. When he is firing on all cylinders and the fuel pipe of ball is quick and accurate, he is a real handful. He is the Pumas’ playmaker-in-chief. When he is good, he is very very good. The problem is that when he is bad, he is atrocious. His on-off form issue is evidenced by the recent victory over South Africa in Mendoza, when he was superlative in all departments. Just a week earlier, in Durban he glitched and looked completely out of sorts as the Springboks pressured him out of the game.
Sanchez can expect the All Blacks, particularly TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea, backed up by Shannon Frizell, to put enormous pressure on him off the set pieces and in broken play.
He will also need to deal with the direct challenge offered by Richie Mo’unga, who excels at running into the channel of his opposite number. Sanchez is no great shakes on defence, as his stats confirm. He has missed 8 tackles in the first two games of the Rugby Championships, and made 13. Making just 60% of his tackles is not going to be enough against the direct running of Mo’unga.
In the main, the Pumas are good defenders, but their main asset is their pack and in particular their lineout set piece and that is an the area where the All Blacks are expecting to face their biggest challenge.
All Black lock Brodie Retallick said. “They’re obviously big men, in the past we’ve backed our speed to get on top of them but seeing them in the first couple of rounds, they’ve become very explosive and they’re chucking their jumpers outrageously high in the air. They’ve obviously put a lot of work into that, especially defensively, trying to cut off ball.
“[Lineouts] are like running a race, the fastest person wins. If you’re the first off the ground with a good lift then 99 per cent of the time you’re going to get to the top before they do.” He added: “They showed great determination in their lineout defence”
There can also be little doubt the Pumas will have some faith their scrum – far more than the Australians did – and their front-on defence is also likely to be better.
“They take real pride in their set piece,” prop Owen Franks said, “You saw against South Africa as they kept the ball in their scrum.”
We can expect the Pumas to have worked at finetuning that second, or counter shove, with the perfect timing they used to disrupt the Springboks after the South Africans had won the initial shove.
While the Pumas will be working on improving on those things that recently worked against South Africa, the All Blacks are taking a completely different approach.
Steve Hansen and his brains trust have taken the opportunity to make a host of changes to their Match-Day 23, resting players like Sam Whitelock, and two of the Barretts, Reiko Ioane, Ryan Crotty, Sam Cane and Aaron Smith, and unleashing some of the reserve talent he has at his disposal.
Richie Mo’unga gets a chance to show that he is capable of reproducing the same level of play for the All Blacks that he showed for his Crusaders outfit. This is the 24-year-old’s first start and he will have been told to go out and enjoy himself. He must simply make his kicks and his tackles, keep his team at the right end of the field and distribute good ball to his strike runners, the likes of Ngani Laumape, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
Of course, we know that he will have a go with the ball in hand too!
It will be interesting to watch his progress.
The return of Nehe Milner-Skudder to the side for the first time since last October adds a different dimension to their finishing too. Milner-Skudder is one of the most exciting runners in the game, with twinkle-toed stepping and surging that sets him apart from the man he replaces, Reiko Ioane. The latter has blistering pace and is more of a straight-line finisher, while Milner-Skudder is more deceptive with the ball in hand, yet also has enough pace to test any defender.
The All Blacks will remember that they were given a bit of a run by Argentina in New Plymouth last year, trailing 22-15 into the second half before a familiar 19-point All Black surge saw them win the game 39-22.
We know that the All Blacks have improved their attacking focus since the French series in June– 12 tries and 78 points against the Wallabies in two weeks proves that.
The question now is, how will the changes in their squad reflect that improvement? How good is the overall squad and can this team improve further during the remaining four rounds of the Rugby Championship and beyond?
The Pumas will need to deal with an All Black team that consists of 15 players who can all make decisions and trigger plays based on what they see in front of them. It was here that they took control of their recent Tests against the Wallabies and ripped them apart.
A simple example is the way they use their mid-field pods of forwards. Most usually the forward pod is the second option for the ball from the halfback. 6 out of 10 times they are simply a decoy for the pass that goes behind them to the backs.
But when the ball goes to the pod of forwards, the play brings a host of options and problems.
Firstly, the ball carrier has to make any one of four decisions. 1. He can take the ball into contact and go to ground to recycle the ball. 2. He can take the ball into the tackle and use the leg drive to gain ground, either taking the ball through the tackle for an offload, or he can shuffle the ball to a close-bound support player.
Or, and this is the big difference between the All Blacks and the rest of the world, the forward in possession can make any of two different passes depending on the situation. 3. An inside pass to a running back or loose-forward on the cut, at pace. 4. Or an outside or backward pass to his flyhalf or another playmaker.
These are all big decisions for a tight forward to make in the heat of test rugby. Yet the All Blacks expect every single one of their forwards to be able to make such decisions.
It adds a dimension to their game that the rest are still trying to emulate.
The All Black strength lies their combinations, their decision-making and, of course, exceptional skill execution. All three are integral to how they play the game; with a focus on attack at every opportunity. This mindset provides for attacking threats all over the field and a willingness to play on the counter which, frankly, can be breath-taking to watch.
Their game-plan is focussed on not getting too structured and to allow the individual players to make decisions based what’s in front of them. Their primary intent is always to put a teammate into space with a pass, an offload, a chip or grubber.
Looking back at the two recent Tests against the Wallabies, one could clearly identify the different approaches of the two teams. The Wallabies were trying to play structured rugby, with pre-practiced moves and ploys with every set-piece ball, and with a lot of broken play ball too. The All Blacks were playing their more individually enterprising game.
The record shows which approach worked best.
Interesting too, is that the Pumas are working on playing a similar style of rugby, within the constraints of a far more limited pool of talent. They also avoid the overly-structured plays, focussing on the counter-punch and feeding off broken play ball. They harry and frustrate opponents into making mistakes, and then they pounce.
Their problem is that they are not nearly as polished, tuned and practiced at being unstructured and intuitive as are the All Blacks.
New Zealand are well on track for another Rugby Championship title, and they have the luxury of depth in their squad that allows them to field an “experimental” team that looks anything but experimental.
The All Blacks have ability to maintain intensity and consistency no matter who the opposition may be.
They go into this Test as overwhelming favourites despite making several changes to the team that smashed the Wallabies in Auckland.
The Argentineans will start the game with massive intensity and focus, much as the Wallabies did in the previous two rounds of the Rugby Championships. Once again, the All Blacks will weather the early storm before unleashing that almost traditional second-half surge with all the firepower to take the game away from the visitors.
And then, when the opponents’ legs are tired and the lungs are burning, they will unleash reserves, the likes of Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown to rub salt into Argentinean wounds.
The All Blacks simply have too much firepower to lose this game.
The All Blacks, by 17 point or more.
New Zealand: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Scott Barrett, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Tim Perry, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Samuel Whitelock, 20 Luke Whitelock, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Damian McKenzie, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown
Argentina: 15 Emiliano Boffelli, 14 Bautista Delguy, 13 Matias Moroni, 12 Jeronimo de la Fuente, 11 Ramiro Moyano, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Martin Landajo, 8 Javier Ortega Desio, 7 Marcos Kremer, 6 Tomas Lezana, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Chaparro Tetaz, 2 Agustin Creevy (captain), 1 Garcia Botta
Replacements: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Juan Pablo Zeiss, 18 Gaston Cortez, 19 Matias Alemanno, 20 Pablo Matera, 21 Tomas Cubelli, 22 Bautista Ezcurra, 23 Juan Cruz Mallia