Thursday, August 28, 2014

Rugby Championship: How Argentina can beat the All Blacks

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One of rugby's biggest questions is how to defeat the might of the All Blacks. The world's leading rugby team is often spoken about as being unbeatable and has an ability to complete streaks of well over ten consecutive victories. The team is, nonetheless, historically and contemporarily not flawless. While the country has dominated the Rugby Championship and the former Tri Nations it, nonetheless, did not win 22 times out of 72 matches played. At Rugby World Cups New Zealand has a record of two titles out of seven attempts. Moreover those two titles were won at home. In terms of total numbers the performances firmly suggest that New Zealand wins the vast majority of its matches. It does not, however, win them all. Argentina now has an opportunity to win.

Since changing from the Tri Nations to the Rugby Championship the All Blacks have not lost in the competition. The All Blacks have thus, according to results, been better since Argentina entered the Rugby Championship than previously. The last home loss was in 2009 when South Africa won in Hamilton and the New Zealanders will be looking to retain this as their next opponent, Argentina, is to play a test in Napier in round three of the Rugby Championship.

The impressive history of winning Tri Nations and Rugby Championship matches has, nonetheless, taken place with a pattern of losses showcasing strong opposition performances with teams playing to their strenghs and winning. This has been true in general with New Zealand's losses, including at Rugby World Cups, tending to feature opposition teams having a game plan that worked against the All Blacks.

France's well documented win at Twickenham in 1999 showed a French team that defeated the All Blacks with flair while in 2007, despite a forward pass, France was on top by shutting down New Zealand's attack which led to the All Blacks trying to play differently in the second half than in the first. Similarly England's win in 2012 showcased the stereotypical strong points of English play while victories by the Springboks and Wallabies throughout in the Tri Nations showcased their play at its best.

There is a way to defeat New Zealand which is by playing ones own game and doing so with execution. Teams who are able to develop and deliver a strategy which can create half chances are on the right path and have a greater chance of winning. Indeed those who look to shutdown the All Blacks at all cost and thus focus heavily on defence have repeatedly lost tests in the final quarter or earlier. Argentina did so against New Zealand at Rugby World Cup 2011 and in the four tests too date in the Rugby Championship.

Finding the right balance is crucial and it must be done in conjunction with the style of play of a particular team. Argentina cannot play like France and nor should it try to. Strong South African teams are vastly different to strong All Blacks teams as are strong Australian and strong English teams. All have their unique characteristics. The ability of coaches to get players to produce a method of play which highlights ones strengths and decreases ones flaws is the mark of confidence.

Against South Africa Daniel Hourcade stood out as a coach looking to win test matches by playing a brand of rugby that creates more opportunities by utilizing innovation but, nonetheless, firmly retains the traditions of Los Pumas - the scrum, physicality and aggressive defence. The manner in which Argentina played was different to that of previous years but not entirely. By identifying what does work and what needs to be altered Argentina outplayed the second best team in the world and is now close to winning a test match in the Rugby Championship.

The task of going to Napier and winning is one of immense difficulty but it is not something that cannot be achieved. Argentina has the players and ability to win the match. After Salta Los Pumas, will have the desire and confidence to do so more than ever. Hourcade had his scrumhalves attacking with their body postion having been rearranged. The distributors have both Nicolás Sánchez and Juan Martín Hernández to work with and both players proved to have an understanding of the game plan which made it all the more effective.

The approach also proved to be screwed outside as, despite no wingers or fullbacks scoring for Argentina in the 2013 Rugby Championship, Manuel Montero and Joaquín Tuculet both scored in Salta. Hourcade's contribution in this area has seen players picked on what they add rather than what they do not lose. By prioritizing an attacking platform he instilled confidence in players to take opportunities and score. Indeed the added width of Argentina's play gave the South Americans a cutting edge that almost resulted in victory. By using the bench differently a win could have been secured.

Forwards were placed in attacking positions far from the tackle area. Marcos Ayerza, for instance, provided a performance with ball in hand rarely seen previously. The approach was one that underlines the changing nature of rugby players. While players continue to have specific positions requiring specific attributes for set play it is less so in general play and one of the reasons for New Zealand's success has been the hybrid nature of All Blacks with forwards up against backs and mid-fielders acting as defensive back-rowers.

While there remains a lot of work to be done evidence suggests progress. Bryan Habana's try in Salta was, indeed, created by a basic handling error by Argentina. But with time and more attention to detail such errors will be less likely to occur. This, in turn, will make Argentina a more competitive team and one harder to play against. In Napier Argentina will be looking to build on Salta and the game plan is a step in right direction to defeating New Zealand.

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