BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - New Zealand are preparing for a greater test of concentration than last year in the Estadio Unico cauldron on Saturday with Argentina edging ever closer to a first win in the Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks had to recover from a disjointed start to last year’s fixture in La Plata, 60km from Buenos Aires, before stamping their authority on the game and coming through to win 54-15.
The Pumas, however, are managing their run-in to the southern hemisphere’s top international tournament better than in their debut season and feel fresher for the match against the holders and world champions.
Coach Santiago Phelan has sensibly rotated his squad and gave his players a week off after their efforts on the road in New Zealand, a 28-13 defeat, and Australia where they lost 14-13 two weeks ago.
“We didn’t start as we wanted last year and made things tough for ourselves (but) we played pretty well after that to get ourselves back in the game,” New Zealand centre Conrad Smith said.
“We gave them points and got their crowd involved in the game which makes it all tougher (so) we’ve just got to avoid that,” he told reporters at the team’s Buenos Aires hotel.
Fullback Israel Dagg said the Argentines would be inspired by playing in front of their own crowd.
“We’ve just have to worry about our game and not get too caught up in what the crowd’s doing,” Dagg said.
“It’s quite easy to drift off and look at the crowd and what they’re doing, we’ve got to stay focused.”
New Zealand assistant coach Ian Foster has seen a marked improvement in the Pumas despite their poor performance against South Africa in the opening match when they were hammered 73-13 in Soweto.
“There’s been a lot of talk about last year’s game but we’re certainly not expecting last year’s game, when you look at what they’ve done in last two, three weeks they’ve shown they’ve made a lot of growth,” Foster said.
“They’re very hard to break down so for us this is a very real and very tough test match, the way they responded in the second game with South Africa and hit the road with two very good performances,” he said referring to Argentina’s narrow 22-17 defeat in Mendoza a week after the Soweto mauling.
Argentina’s coaching staff, with help from New Zealand’s World Cup-winning coach Graham Henry, have had to work on the team’s mental aptitude as much as their skills.
“The pressure and having to give of their very best is something the players live with in every match and the more so against the three best teams in the world,” Phelan said.
“Over and above the (match) result, our objective is to have confidence in what we’ve been working on,” he told reporters.
“The team are growing with each match, whereas last year we started very well and didn’t play so well towards the end of the tournament.”
Argentina: 15-Juan Martin Hernandez, 14-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, 13-Marcelo Bosch, 12-Santiago Fernandez, 11-Juan Imhoff, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 9-Martin Landajo; 8-Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 7-Pablo Matera, 6-Juan Fernandez Lobbe (captain), 5-Patricio Albacete, 4-Julio Farias Cabello, 3-Juan Figallo, 2-Eusebio Guinazu, 1-Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16-Agustin Creevy, 17-Nahuel Lobo, 18-Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19-Mariano Galarza, 20-Benjamín Macome, 21-Tomas Cubelli, 22-Felipe Contepomi, 23-Horacio Agulla
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma‘a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Aaron Cruden, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Sam Cane, 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Wyatt Crockett, 18-Charlie Faumuina, 19-Jeremy Thrush, 20-Steven Luatua, 21-Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22-Beauden Barrett, 23-Charles Piutau
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Editing by Ed Osmond