Argentina's best chance to beat All Blacks
OPINION: It’s been 34 years since the All Blacks first faced off against the Pumas in Buenos Aires on October 26, 1985.
The All Black emerged victorious 33-20 on that day, and in 28 tests since then, the Argentines are still yet to taste victory against the Kiwis.
A truncated Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend with a highly-anticipated clash between the Springboks and Wallabies in Johannesburg, and following that is the 29th instalment of the growing rivalry between Argentina and New Zealand.
On the face of it, many would favour Steve Hansen’s side to come away from this weekend’s bout with at least four competition points in hand, as they have done every time they’ve encountered the South Americans, and rightly so.
There is little to suggest that the All Blacks will struggle against Argentina, with ‘foundation day’ camps being held throughout the Super Rugby campaign to keep last year’s squad members in shape and up to date with Hansen’s plans.
Furthermore, the All Blacks’ most recent showings in 2018 yielded yet another successful season, even with tight defeats at the hands of South Africa and Ireland – two sides many would normally regard as superior teams to that of Los Pumas.
Add to that another year of Super Rugby where four of New Zealand’s five franchises clinched play-off berths, and the Crusaders emerged as champions for the third time straight, and there is rather compelling evidence to indicate the All Blacks are well equipped to leave Estadio Velez Sarsfeld with another victory under their belt.
This year, however, is different.
Murmurings continue to grow louder about the slow yet steady rise of Argentinian rugby, with a trickle of successes from the national side against the Springboks and Wallabies since their World Cup semi-final appearance in 2015 helping to enhance their credibility.
But it has been the Jaguares who have really established Argentina as a genuine threat to top tier rugby nations.
Since being admitted into Super Rugby in 2016, the Buenos Aires club have risen steadily up the end-of-season rankings, with the 13th place finish in their inaugural season turning into a 10th place finish, which turned into quarter-final exit last year, and they will go into the 2020 season as the reigning runners-up to the all-conquering Crusaders.
The evolution of the Jaguares is indicative of how their all-Argentine squad has improved and adapted to the rigours of southern hemisphere rugby over the years, and previously underrated players have developed into bona fide stars of the competition.
Pablo Matera, Emiliano Boffelli, Tomas Lavanini, Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, Matias Orlando, Matias Moroni and Guido Petti are all players who played integral roles in the Jaguares’ breakthrough year in 2019, as they defeated three of the five Kiwi franchises and topped the South African conference, laying the foundations for a big tilt at the title next year.
The development of those players and their teammates since the 2015 World Cup have made Argentina a very real threat to any side wishing to challenge for the Webb Ellis Cup, and that includes the All Blacks this weekend.
That’s something that could not have been said before this year, but it is something that rings true, especially when taking into consideration the squad Hansen has taken with him to South America for Saturday’s clash.
Just three Crusaders – Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor and George Bridge – have been included in the travelling 30-man squad, making them and Highlanders trio Liam Coltman, Aaron Smith and Josh Ioane the only players within the All Blacks ranks to have defeated the Argentinians this year.
That alone should strike confidence into the Pumas as they prepare for what will be the sternest test they face ahead of this year’s World Cup, as should the inclusions of offshore-based players Nicolas Sanchez, Facundo Isa, Santiago Cordero, Ramiro Herrera and Juan Figallo.
Through that quintet, along with the impressive Jaguares players who make up the bulk of the national team squad, Argentina have a formidable look about them, perhaps the most formidable they’ve looked since joining SANZAAR at the beginning of the decade.
Their squad strength and extensive player development has been reflected in the ever-improving results they have attained year after year, culminating in a Super Rugby final appearance, and with the All Blacks undermanned without eight-star Crusaders players, do not be surprised to see the Pumas pounce in a few days’ time.