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Much has changed since Los Pumas last two test tour of New Zealand in 1997

By Frankie Deges
Marcos Kremer of Argentina pushes Shannon Frizell of the All Blacks during the 2020 Tri-Nations rugby match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Argentina Los Pumas at Bankwest Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Nickers 2 hours ago
'One of the poorest All Blacks performances I've seen in a long time'

Extreme hyperbole from Biggar. NZ have played far, far worse than that. The 20/21 team was by far the worst of the professional era. Losses to Argentina, shambolic game against Japan and hapless NH tour of 2021. But even that dreadful team were able to put 50 points on Wales and beat them by 38. Much easier to “tear them to pieces” from the commentary box apparently. Ignored by virtually everyone is how good the ABs defence was. That is why England didn’t win, they simply could not score enough points against that defence. The ABs attack was very average, but their defence was world class and that’s what won them the game. Any Wales team that Biggar has ever played for would have found themselves in the same situation and would definitely not have scored tries from those cross kicks. That ABs team beats Biggar’s best Wales team 31 - 13. England’s attack was as good as it was allowed to be by a superior defence. Hats off to Hansen, he has picked up where MacLeod finally got the ABs to last year and not missed a step. England’s attack will be a big worry for Borthwick. They have not established a reliable, repeatable way to break teams down and score points. They were held to some very low scores by average teams in the 6N, and again here didn’t cross 20 points on either occasion. If I was an England fan I would be crying out for a new attack coach. Borthwick would do well to cast his net now, a poor home winter with a faltering attack will start the calls for his job.

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T
Thomas 2 hours ago
'Champions get up when they can't': Matt Williams weighs in on Ireland's win over Boks

While both teams have their particular positives, I think neither team should rest on their laurels. South Africa managed to tie a series against an uncomfortable opponent, that has had their numbers for a couple of years, while trial-running a completely new attack system, that still doesn’t work properly. But one aspect of “it doesn’t work yet” is a transition from attack to defense in broken play, as the Boks leaked three tries in two matches this way, and lost the second match as a result. Ireland avoided a series loss in a hostile environment, and in spite of many key player injuries, while managing to significantly improve and tighten their defense in game 2 (which demonstrates the breadth of their squad as well as their ability to adjust and recalibrate). At the same time, their own attack hadn’t amounted to much, either (save from exploiting the gaps in the Boks’ new system, gaps that won’t be there anymore in a few months’ time), and they haven’t found an answer to the Boks scrum, which almost costed them the 2nd match, if it hadn’t been for pretty much unrepeatable Frawley heroics. In the end, there isn’t much that separates those two sides … which is exactly what we knew before the series already. Back to the drawing board for both teams, the work only just begins for two teams with the highest ambition. Start of a cycle alright.

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