Rugby Championship

Weather to spoil NZ's party?

2014-09-04 11:01
Ian Foster (Getty Images)

Napier - The All Blacks are downplaying their heavy favouritism tag for Saturday's Rugby Championship Test against Argentina, pointing to forecast heavy rain as wiping out any foregone conclusions.

By rights, the All Blacks as the world's top ranked side should be far too strong for the 12th ranked Argentinians, who remain winless after 14 matches since being included in the southern hemisphere competition in 2012.

But while the All Blacks have never lost to Argentina, a narrowing of results show the powerful South Americans are improving, and the wet conditions have shaped this clash as a battle of the packs playing into their hands.

Two weeks back, the unbeaten All Blacks thrashed the Wallabies 51-20 on a dry ground in Auckland, but they struggled to escape with a 12-12 draw the previous week against the Australians in heavy rain in Sydney.

"The rain is always a leveller and we saw that in Sydney, where it was very wet, and some of our skill work dropped to a level that made that game a real bunfight," assistant coach Ian Foster said.

All Blacks scrum coach Mike Cron also sounded a warning, describing Argentina's scrum as "their DNA", noting they "hammered South Africa" in their previous two Tests before going down 13-6 away and then 33-31 at home.

Although the All Blacks run-on pack have proved solid, their set-piece dominance came unstuck when the replacements were unleashed off the bench in the final 20 minutes of the two Australian Tests.

This has forced head coach Steve Hansen to add specialist lock Jeremy Thrush and prop Joe Moody, a former New Zealand wrestling international, to shore up the bench in place of utility Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina.

The scrum has not been the only focal point for the All Blacks this week as they have also focused on Argentina's rapidly developing kicking game with the lesson learned in the Sydney rain not to counter-attack with long-range passes.

The All Blacks have made three changes to their starting 15, all in the backs, while Argentina have changed one forward and one back.

Beauden Barrett, in his 22nd Test, gets his first start in the 10 jersey for the All Blacks and will bring a more direct running game than Aaron Cruden, who has been ruled out with a chest muscle injury.

Israel Dagg returns at fullback after being on the outer since the first Test against England in June, with Ben Smith moving to the wing and Cory Jane dropping out of the squad.

In the centres, Ma'a Nonu has recovered from his shoulder injury, and resumes his partnership with Conrad Smith for their 53rd Test together.

Argentina, who dominated South Africa two weeks ago only to be denied an historic victory by a late penalty, have replaced injured Paul Matera with Leonardo Senatore in the loose forwards.

Elsewhere, 53-Test veteran Horacio Agulla comes in for Manuel Montero on the wing in what coach Daniel Hourcade described as a tactical move.

"We have many options on the wing. Even though this is our main objective now we are also thinking about the World Cup. We want to give opportunities to all the players without changing the structure of the team," he said.

The All Blacks have played Argentina 22 times since 1976, winning 21 matches, with Argentina's best performance a 21-21 draw in 1985.


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