Playing at home has always been touted as a major advantage in sports.
Whilst nothing conclusive has ever been produced, a number of potential explanations exist: home teams are galvanised by their local supporters cheering them on, home teams are more used to the local environment (weather, turf etc.), home teams are obviously playing in their local time zone and suffer little travel time, and maybe the mere expectation that teams will play better at home plays a part in the increased success too.
Of course, playing at home isn’t always a recipe for victory. The ghosts of past expectations have crushed many a team in the past. In this year’s rendition of Super Rugby, for example, the Blues managed only one win at home but earned three on the road. Given the comparative lack of support that the Auckland based squad gets when compared to New Zealand’s other teams, it must almost be more demoralising playing in front of a home crowd for Blues players than playing overseas.
In some cases, teams aren’t actually suited to their home turf at all. Whilst you do normally see teams who are used to hard, dry surfaces showing a bit more razzle-dazzle with the ball in hand (compare Super Rugby teams with their European counterparts, who normally play much of the season in the wet of winter), there are many exceptions to the rule. Some of the South African teams, in particular, play rugby much more suited to the conditions of the Northern Hemisphere (just one more reason why it’s no surprise to see more SA teams ready to jump into the Pro14), even though their turfs are well suited for running rugby.
There are also teams who seem better equipped at adjusting their style to suit the conditions. New Zealand and Ireland, the two best teams in the world at present, have many strings to their bow. In New Zealand’s case, however, rarely do they actually get to play on a flat, hard surface, with most of their test matches falling during relatively soggy periods of the year.
In particular, the Rugby Championship falls smack bang in the middle of winter for the partaking nations – not as big a deal for Australia, South Africa and Argentina, where the winters are a bit drier, but matches in New Zealand tend to, more often than not, be wet affairs.
Barring the odd match in Dunedin, New Zealand has typically had to settle for forward-oriented games in their home Rugby Championship matches. Although the All Blacks may be competent at forward-based play, their comparative advantage is definitely in the more free-roaming, counter-attacking play – play which is considerably more challenging in the rain.
In contrast, the Pumas are a team that tends to thrive on the more combative close-quarters play. That’s not to suggest they don’t have gamebreakers all over the field – far from it – but Argentina tends to lack a little bit of finesse at times, whereas they are never short of hard-grafting, mountain shifting forwards.
It’s no surprise then, that the Pumas will be targeting this weekend’s match up against New Zealand in Nelson as an opportunity to finally get a win over the men in black. In 26 matches Argentina has yet to come out on top at the end of 80 minutes – but they’ve certainly started strongly in some of the more recent matches.
In 2017, Argentina took a 16-15 lead into the break at Yarrow Stadium in Taranaki. The Pumas actually managed to push out to a 7-point lead before succumbing 39-22 at the end of the match. One year earlier, the Pumas were leading until the 32 nd minute and were within one score of the All Blacks at the 54th. In 2015, again, everything was all square between the two teams at halftime. The Pumas have shown time and time again that, on a slower track, they’re more than capable of trading blows with New Zealand – they just fall away as the game wears on.
Certainly, there are a few areas where Argentina will feel they may have the wood on New Zealand. Their scrum is more dominant now than it was this time last year, thanks to the handy addition of Juan Figallo. As always, the Pumas also have a very strong loose forward trio – a trio that easily outperformed their Springbok counterparts in Mendoza. It’s also worth factoring in the sizeable win that the Pumas secured in Mendoza – playing at home may have its advantages, but nothing strengthens a team like an unexpected and well-deserved win against more fancied opposition.
There’s also plenty of talk of the All Blacks selectors rolling out a number of changes for the upcoming weekend. Young, less experienced players will of course be eager to impress, but Argentina will be quick to take advantage of any overly ambitious plays in the wet.
Nelson may not be due for rain in the next few days, but there will inevitably be a heavy dew hanging over the stadium when the All Blacks and the Pumas line-up on Saturday, as is tradition in New Zealand winters. In contrast, the return leg match in Buenos Aires will likely be a hot, relatively dry affair that will give both teams the opportunity to run with the ball. The environment in Argentina will almost inevitably lead to the Pumas taking to their backs to make ground – which is the kind of play that the All Blacks are very good at punishing.
Argentina may never have beaten New Zealand, but with the increased number of regular games happening between the teams, it will inevitably happen in the near future. Contrary to what most may expect, however, this may be a hoodoo that Argentina is more likely to break away from home.
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