WELLINGTON Argentina, emboldened by victory over the Springboks and improved by the experience of Super Rugby, are daring to dream that a first test victory over New Zealand might just be within their grasp this weekend.
The Pumas have just one draw to show for their efforts in 22 attempts to beat the All Blacks and the world champions have certainly not showed any signs of slowing down this season as they have extended their unbeaten run to 13 matches.
There can be no doubt that Argentina have improved greatly since they entered the Rugby Championship in 2012, though, and that improvement should be on display when they take on New Zealand in Hamilton on Saturday.
"We know that we will play against the best team in the world, but we are also aware of the conditions we have and if we prepare the party to perfection we can get a good result," lock Matias Alemanno said on Thursday.
Although the Argentines entered the Rugby Championship four years ago, they did not have a Super Rugby side until this year when the Jaguares joined the expanded 18-team competition.
While the side disappointed given their international-laden playing roster, there were indications they would be more competitive once they got used to the rigours of the tournament.
Those experiences had filtered through to the national side's performances, number eight Facundo Isa said.
"(It) gave us experience which was important to many of us to confront the different styles in different countries and gave us awareness of another pace of play and helped develop confidence," the loose forward said.
"The team matured a lot, and that inspires us to beat New Zealand."
That maturity was evident in their recent clashes against South Africa, where they were pipped by the Springboks 30-23 in Nelspruit on Aug. 20 before they beat Allister Coetzee's side 26-24 in Salta the following week.
Those results were a continuation of the side's development since 2012, where they have consistently pushed Australia and South Africa and achieved victories against both.
The All Blacks have also found them difficult to put away, which was never more evident during last year's World Cup pool game when it took 65 minutes to break the Pumas down and clinch a 26-16 victory.
"They have been a formidable foe for a long time," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen told reporters in Hamilton on Thursday. "The last time we played them at the World Cup that was a real battle, wasn't it?"
Hansen expected a similar slog up front on Saturday for his side, who have hammered the Wallabies twice to open the championship, though the Pumas' willingness to incorporate fast-paced Super Rugby tactics would add another dimension.
"They've always been very combative up front but I've always thought they've had really talented backs and probably haven't used them as much as that talent warrants," Hansen added.
"They seem to want to use the ball, they're good on the off-load and their forwards off-load in the tackle as well so they're very difficult to contain because of that."
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Napier; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)