Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Argentina´s double opportunity to pounce in Rugby Championship

Photo: Rodrigo Vergara
Three days out from the fifth round of the 2013 Rugby Championship there appears to be a commonly held perspective that Argentina has a better chance of winning this weekend than does Australia. Such has been the performances of both teams in the tournament that Argentina is talked about as being better now in 2012 while Australia has deteriorated.

Whether or not Australia is worse now than twelve months ago does not change the fact that Argentina remains winless in the competition. What has changed, however is that unlike in 2012 Argentina is preparing to give itself the best possible chance of winning matches. The overuse of players in 2012 had an impact with the final test featuring a tired Pumas side rather than a fresh one which made Australia´s task less complicated.

Rodrigo Roncero´s final appearance as a Puma featured a team visibly drained after it had been ran all over La Plata one week earlier against New Zealand. Santiago Phelan made few changes throughout the 2012 Rugby Championship. So much so that only nineteen players started a test. The mid-field combination was unchanged with Santiago Fernández and Marcelo Bosch playing all six matches together. Both players were left out of the starting fifteen in Perth with Phelan opting to start Felipe Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi. 

There have been four other changes from Perth with the overwhelming theme not being selection based on form or reputation but fitness. The Graham Henry influence of looking to get more out of ones players has seen Phelan name a side that is strong and one that will be able to be adjusted for the final match against Australia the following weekend. Manuel Carizza has been left out of the match not because Julio Farías Cabello is better but because Argentina are better with a fully fit Carizza than without. Carizza had a heavy workload in the away tests against Australia and New Zealand and will be much better prepared to play in his home city of Rosario after being rested. 

Debate remains about whether or not Argentina can in fact win the match this Saturday. The status of the All Blacks as the World Champions and the number one ranked team in the IRB World Rankings is such that there is a widespread belief that New Zealand needs to play poorly and Argentina outstandingly for the result to be anything other than an All Blacks win. In reality it is not so simple. New Zealand ended 2012 with a heavy loss against England and also started its end of year tour with a draw against Australia. On both occassions New Zealand was without home support and neither Twickenham nor Suncorp Stadium has the same hostility as Argentina. The La Plata crowd is certain to be Argentina´s sixteenth player.

This weekend will see New Zealand play without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. To players that cannot simply be replaced even by a nation with as much talent as New Zealand. The players who will fill their boots are accomplished in their own right. They have impressed in Super Rugby and have, when given the chance, performed well for the All Blacks. They do not, however have one priceless commodity - previous experience of this kind. For this reason captain Kieran Read will need help from senior players such as Conrad Smith and Tony Woodcock the later of whom was badly outplayed by Juan Figallo in Hamilton.

The match in Rosario is Argentina´s most winable match and the Wallabies will be coming off a very physical encounter in Cape Town. Australia lacks the same resources that New Zealand and South Africa have meaning that it cannot simply rotate players. Argentina´s move to do so could therefore be an act of brilliance and will certainly be talked about should Los Pumas win in Rosario. This does not mean Argentina cannot win in La Plata. The All Blacks are not unbeatable and the 2013 Pumas side is better than that of 2012 and, this time around, has a reliable goalkicker. Shutting down the All Blacks will be decisive as will preventing errors. Aside from the 2012 La Plata test Argentina´s recent matches against New Zealand have shown strong, organized defense that New Zealand struggled to penetrate. 

There is still widespread debate about the refereeing from the previous round of the competition. In both matches decisions went in favor of the home teams and shaped the outcome of the matches. South Africa had to play a significant proportion of the match with one player less than the All Blacks. It ruined the match as a contest and a subsequent apology from the IRB acted to calm the situation. It did not, however change the points table as it maintained New Zealand in first place, South Africa in second, Australia in third and Argentina in fourth. 

South Africa will be out to win this match cleanly and put away the Wallabies in a way that Argentina was not able to do so in Perth. Los Pumas had the better of play for the majority of the second half but the side was unable to capitalize and was not helped by a questionable refereeing performance which saw the UAR write to the IRB seeking answers. But whether or not Australia had a sixteenth player does not change the fact that Argentina was camped in the Australian half and came away with only one try. Both New Zealand and South Africa would have been expected to have scored 20 points. 

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