Much has changed since Los Pumas last two test tour of New Zealand in 1997
That tour in 1997 was a really hard one for Los Pumas. Five games, two tests and the tour opener against the always strong New Zealand Maoris.
The understandable loss in Napier against a Maori side led by Errol Brain was the start of a tour that had one win as scant reward, under heavy rain in Nelson, 48-10 against Nelson Marlborough.
Flying over the Cook Straight was a forewarning of what would happen later that week – the four or five small Air New Zealand planes that transported the squad moved and shook in one of those regular storms that hit the southern and northern tip of both islands.
Even if the test at the old Athletic Park was played under the sun, it was a dark day for Argentine rugby, with the 93-8 loss leaving a group of players perplexed and unable to understand what had hit them. They were certainly moved and shaken.
Taranaki beat them midweek and the second test, a night game in Hamilton, was a more decent loss: 62-10.
Argentina had some very good players, namely Lisandro Arbizu, Gonzalo Quesada, Nico Fernández Miranda, Rolando Martin, the huge locking duo of Germán Llanes and Pedro Sporleder and Mario Ledesma, who played his first major test in Hamilton.
The All Blacks were one of the best teams in history: Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick and Craig Dowd, Ian Jones and Robin Brooke; Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randell and Zinny; Justin Marshall and Carlos Spencer, Tana, Lee Stensness and Frank Bunce, Jeff ‘Goldie’ Wilson and Christian Cullen. Enough said.
That was the last time Argentina played two consecutive tests against New Zealand.
That was the start of professional rugby in Argentina, maybe not in the pocket. Certainly in the mindset and big thanks must go to the iconic Grizz Wyllie.
It might have taken a few years for Los Pumas to find their feet in test rugby and 23 years for their first win against the All Blacks, but 2022 is a totally different scenario. Not that this means the task is in anyway easier.
Much has been said about the current state of the men in black; they really had their backs against the wall, probably like never before for this current crop of players. They responded.
Boy did they respond.
Los Pumas are showing signs of getting better with each game since the start of the season.
Yes, it is great to look down on the rest of the teams from the top of the table, but it is momentary gratification. Movement is expected over the weekend.
Pablo Matera was only four years old when Argentina played those two consecutive tests in New Zealand in ‘97. He will feel at home this first week in Christchurch, a city he called home from late last year until the end of a winning Super Rugby campaign.
Eyes were on him when, as captain, he was instrumental in the 25-15 win in the Bankwest Stadium in Sydney in 2020. The 25 points were all scored by the absent Nicolás Sánchez, but Matera was the leader that was needed in such a game.
His time later spent in Christchurch will have proved very important for him, as a leader without the captaincy, learning about the rugby culture in the country, training and rubbing shoulders with many of his rivals over the next couple of weekends.
Knowing where the best coffee shops in Christchurch are will come handy, but what he learnt in the inner circles of the Crusaders could prove crucial.
Flying, so far, under the radar is assistant coach Felipe Contepomi. The Leinster attack coach for four seasons is very much respected by Michael Cheika.
His heir apparent, has not only worked with one of the best clubs in the world but should have been in close contact with Joe Schmidt, sharing plans and working together for the benefit of Irish rugby.
Both have moved back to their own countries and now they face each other. Again, Felipe will know what to expect from a team with Joe onboard. As with Matera, the All Blacks will also know what Contepomi and Cheika, a regular opponent for almost a decade, can bring to the party.
I don’t expect the All Blacks to win by 50 as Hamish Bidwell wrote earlier in the week; it is also hard to bet against a side that is on the mend and has the urgent need to regain the confidence of a country.
But Argentina is on the rise, have taken a lot of positives from the shared series against the Wallabies and, if anything, this Rugby Championship format is much friendlier to them that those in previous years, when they seemed to be on a long-haul flight every fortnight.
Can Los Pumas beat the All Blacks in either of the two upcoming tests? Now that the hoodoo of never beating the All Blacks has been broken, and given their recent game-by-game growth, there is confidence in the camp.
One minute at a time, for eighty minutes.
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