When the Pumas and All Blacks take to the field at Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium on Saturday, it will be Argentina’s first test match in 402 days.
The last time Mario Ledesma’s side played an official test was against the USA at last year’s World Cup, leaving them at long odds of clinching the biggest of shock victories over a New Zealand team they have never beaten.
Until a fortnight ago, a large number of Argentine players hadn’t played a match at all since Super Rugby was suspended in March.
Even the matches they have played over the past two weeks have only been against a Rugby Australia XV, certainly a far cry from the might of the All Blacks.
By comparison, Ian Foster’s squad enjoyed a full Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, reinstated the North vs South derby, locked away the Bledisloe Cup for another year from a four-match series against Australia and currently lead the Tri-Nations.
The volume and quality of matches the New Zealanders have played since coming back into action in June unsurprisingly places them as firm favourites to extend their lead in the makeshift SANZAAR competition.
Aiding their bid to do just that is the return of eight key players that starred in the 43-5 drubbing of the Wallabies in Bledisloe III, all of whom missed the 24-22 upset defeat at the hands of the Australians in Brisbane last week.
Thrusting that cohort back into New Zealand’s starting team eliminates the feeling of unfamiliarity that was evident in the All Blacks side that was left on its haunches at Suncorp Stadium.
Instead, they have been replaced by a XV that is widely considered to be Foster’s premier run-on squad.
Featuring a halves pairing of Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith, a back three of Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and Caleb Clarke, as well as the likes of Patrick Tuipulotu, Joe Moody and Dane Coles up front, much is expected of All Blacks captain Sam Cane and his troops.
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“I think just based off the way we’ve trained this week, the group’s been pretty clinical,” Cane told reporters from the team’s Manly hotel over a Zoom call on Friday of how his side have prepared.
“We’ve been training well, and with that we’ve just got to get the mental aspect of the game right, and that pretty much comes down to attitude and desire to get up off our line defensively and a lot to do with work rate and things like that.”
Do not be mistaken, though – that softly-spoken confidence doesn’t translate to complacency from New Zealand’s viewpoint.
After first coming into camp back in August, a month before Foster even named his initial All Blacks squad, Cane is aware of the unity and cohesion that is bound to have formed among the Argentines.
He sees that as a genuine threat to his team’s chances of success, and is expecting an early onslaught from the Pumas to dent any Kiwi hopes of a runaway victory.
“Any time a team has had a lot of preparation building up to a test match and so much energy has gone into it, they’re always going to be a dangerous side,” he said.
“I think they’re the first Argentinian professional team to be playing and representing their country this year, so they’ll go out with immense pride and we know how passionate they can be, so we’re expecting the first 20 minutes, particularly, for it to be all on.”
Gaining any kind of ascendency over their counterparts in the early stages of the contest may be enough to allow the Pumas to flourish and play to their strengths.
Pointing to their physicality and well-structured attack, Cane reaffirmed the importance of keeping the Argentinians at bay.
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“They can obviously be very physical, but I think the toughest part about playing the Pumas at their best is their ability to keep the ball alive.
“Their offloading, they’re very good on their feet and run good lines, so it’s that keeping the ball alive, getting in behind the gain line again and again which can make them a hard beast to stop.
“We’ll have to try nullify that, get off the line, chop them, get two men in the tackle, and hopefully we don’t see too much of that tomorrow.”
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