NAPIER, New Zealand, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Playing smarter has been a key message the All Blacks have repeated in the build-up to their Rugby Championship clash with Argentina on Saturday, particularly given the difficulties the Pumas have posed the world champions in recent years.
Despite having never lost to the South Americans, the Pumas have proved hard for the All Blacks to work out and then break down on home soil, especially in the wet conditions that are expected at Napier’s McLean Park on Saturday (0735 kickoff).
During the World Cup quarter-final, it took seven penalty goals from Piri Weepu to keep the scoreboard ticking over before two tries in the last 15 minutes gave them a 33-13 victory.
In 2012, the pattern continued with the All Blacks needing two tries in six second-half minutes to give them a 21-5 win.
Last year it took well into the second spell before they clinched a 28-13 victory in atrocious conditions in Hamilton.
The return matches in Argentina, however, have been far more one-sided in the All Blacks’ favour, suggesting it took them a little while to figure out how to beat the Pumas, who have historically based their game on a combative forward pack controlling an immensely powerful scrum.
That pack has been complemented with a superb kicking flyhalf and perplexing defensive system that appears to give attackers space out wide only for it to disappear in an instant.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, however, said the Pumas had developed even further this year, with several of his players suggesting they were now adapting a similar style to the All Blacks, willing to give the ball width, counter-attacking from depth and varying their tactical kicking.
”They’re a good side. They’ve made a lot of progress,“ Hansen told reporters in Napier. ”South Africa really struggled with them at scrum time so they’ve got that part of the game going well.
”Their back three are exciting, they want to run, they’ve been scoring tries.
“They are very capable rugby players.”
Hansen added Pumas’ coach Daniel Hourcade’s decision to give several players a rest in June rather than playing against Ireland and Scotland had been an important factor in their two narrow losses to the Springboks in the Rugby Championship.
“They were very smart giving them a rest in June,” he added.
“Most of those guys had been playing for a year ...so giving them a rest through that period has rejuvenated them too.”
Hansen, who is building his side ahead of the World Cup defence next year, made three changes to the side that hammered the Wallabies 51-20 at Eden Park almost two weeks ago, with fullback Israel Dagg returning for a start on his home ground.
Dagg’s powerful right boot is expected to be a bonus in the expected wet conditions, while Beauden Barrett will get his first start at flyhalf.
Hansen retained the pack that demolished the Wallabies, while Hourcade made one personnel change to his forwards with the impressive Pablo Matera, who suffered a partial dislocation of his shoulder in the 33-31 loss to the Springboks at Salta, replaced by Leonardo Senatore.
Massive winger Manuel Montero has also been replaced by Horacio Agulla, ending hopes of a showdown out wide between Montero and the equally imposing Julian Savea.
New Zealand: 15-Israel Dagg, 14-Ben Smith, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma‘a Nonu, 11-Julian Savea, 10-Beauden Barrett, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 6-Liam Messam, 5-Sam Whitelock, 4-Brodie Retallick, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Dane Coles, 1-Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-Ben Franks, 18-Joe Moody, 19-Jeremy Thrush, 20-Sam Cane, 21-TJ Perenara, 22-Colin Slade, 23-Malaki Fekitoa
Argentina: 15-Joaquin Tuculet, 14-Horacio Agulla, 13-Marcelo Bosch, 12-Juan Martin Hernandez, 11-Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, 10-Nicolas Sanchez, 9-Martin Landajo, 8-Leonardo Senatore, 7-Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 6-Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 5-Tomas Lavanini, 4-Mariano Galarza, 3-Ramiro Herrera, 2-Agustin Creevy (captain), 1-Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16-Matias Cortese, 17-Lucas Noguera Paz, 18-Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19-Matias Alemanno, 20-Rodrigo Baez, 21- Tomas Cubelli, 22-Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23-Juan Imhoff.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Editing by Patrick Johnston