Preview: New Zealand v Argentina

Date published: September 5 2014

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Fresh from humbling the Wallabies at Eden Park, reigning champions New Zealand will host an improving Argentina in Napier.

Fresh from humbling the Wallabies at Eden Park, reigning champions New Zealand will host an improving Argentina in Napier.

It should be stressed that describing los Pumas as 'improving' really isn't written patronisingly – they genuinely are. Their draw against South Africa in 2012 might be their best result in the Rugby Championship, but the 31-33 loss in Salta was easily their best performance.

That of course came on the back of wading through the tide in Pretoria, when Argentina finished within seven points.

The losing bonus point is becoming a bittersweet trend for the men from South America, who have now racked up six in their 14 Rugby Championship matches to date.

The first win is coming; but where? Bar a similar washout in Perth last year taking on the Wallabies, who only won by a point, Argentina's best chances have tended to come versus the Boks.

Even if they finish the 2014 tournament winless however, as painful as that would be, real progress has been made.

Daniel Hourcade had little time last November to improve his squad, but the fractured angst that appeared to bubble over at the end of the Santiago Phelan era at least dissipated.

While the familiar Argentine strengths such as the scrum and good breakdown work remain, there has undeniably been a change of tactics when it's come to attacking ambition, which has brought back memories of Ignacio Corleto and Lucas Borges scampering around at the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Chances are now being created for the likes of Manuel Montero (absent in Napier) and Joaquin Tuculet to finish off, while Horacio Agulla's will only add to their options going forward.

Nicolás Sánchez has arguably been the tournament's best ten thus far, save Aaron Cruden's wondershow in Auckland, while the blend of old and young is spot on.

There is class too. Juan Martín Hernández's brain appeared to desert him in the final play two weeks ago, but up to that point he had been mesmeric. Having slated him for failing to produce, it's only right to acknowledge him winding back the clock.

Pablo Matera's absence from the tour is a shame after more promising outings, but Tomás Lavanini and Ramiro Herrera, the latter ably replacing Juan Figallo, have both stood out as rising young talents in the pack.

Keeping it tight in that area and resisting the temptation to take on the All Blacks out wide is integral if the visitors are to win, especially if the forecast stays true, even if Argentina (31) have beaten more defenders over the first two games than New Zealand (28).

No team though has been better so far than Argentina's 96 percent success rate at the breakdown. The challenge for los Pumas is taking on a scrum and lineout that rank statistically better than their own.

Lose those battles and New Zealand can be so clinical, as we saw when Australia came to town.

Julian Savea, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith wait for no man when it comes to sniping around the edges of defences looking for space. All have made three clean breaks, with Ben Smith beating six defenders ahead of his switch from full-back to the wing.

That's before even discussing New Zealand on the other side of the ball. Boasting an 89.2 percent tackle success rate, the top four tacklers in the competition are All Blacks.

Richie McCaw leads the way on 29, having scored as many tries so far in this competition as he's remarkably picked up yellow cards in his Test career – two. If he really is slowing down, then he's doing a pretty good job of it.

McCaw in a sense epitomises his team. Just when you think that the ground is about to crumble away underneath their fortress, they prove you wrong.

It wasn't wrong to describe three of New Zealand's last five performances before thrashing the Wallabies as shaky, but there's certainly no talk now of them being a fading force.

That ethereal rugby which they produced at Eden Park should be cherished.

Ones to Watch

For New Zealand: With his cameo appearance for Hawke's Bay happening to also give him a chance to lift the Ranfurly Shield, Israel Dagg is back in All Blacks colours and features in only his second Test of the year. Ben Smith's shift to the wing in place of Cory Jane gives Dagg the chance to perform and underline just why he's been so highly regarded since making his debut in 2010. When confident he can be dazzling.

For Argentina: Getting better with age, Juan Manuel Leguizamón has a tough task on his hands going toe-to-toe with McCaw, Liam Messam and Kieran Read. The experienced flanker though is full of power and has impressed with ball in hand this tournament, making the second-highest number of carries with 23. His combination with Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe is tried and tested, but both flankers must work to replicate Matera's impact.

Head-to-Head: Look no further than the two numbers tens. Beauden Barrett will make only his third ever start for New Zealand in 23 Tests, the last time being at full-back against Japan in 2013. Still only 23, Barrett is breathtaking in full flight when he takes on the defence, but is also an accurate goalkicker and great distributor.

Nicolás Sánchez has been all of those things for Argentina, not just making clean breaks but also finding the corners with some impressive tactical kicking. He has to be inch-perfect with every single one in Napier if Argentina are to get the necessary territory to score points and give their hosts a scare.

It's also worth pinpointing the scrummaging battle between Owen Franks and Marcos Ayerza. The Leicester prop was on fire as he dismantled Jannie du Plessis, with another big fish now his next target.

Previous Results:

2013: New Zealand won 33-15 in La Plata
2013: New Zealand won 28-13 in Hamilton
2012: New Zealand won 54-15 in La Plata
2012: New Zealand won 21-5 in Wellington
2011: New Zealand won 33-10 in Auckland (RWC)
2006: New Zealand won 25-19 in Buenos Aires
2004: New Zealand won 41-7 in Hamilton
2001: New Zealand won 24-20 in Buenos Aires
2001: New Zealand won 67-19 in Christchurch
1997: New Zealand won 62-10 in Hamilton
1997: New Zealand won 93-8 in Wellington
1991: New Zealand won 36-6 in Buenos Aires
1991: New Zealand won 28-14 in Buenos Aires

Prediction: In this fixture over the last two years New Zealand have won by an average of 15.5 points. The margin of victory this time around hinges on the scrum, and if Argentina's defence can live with the All Blacks all-range attack when Aaron Smith and Barrett crank up the speed, even if the heavens open as expected. That kind of rain you think might even things out a bit.

That said, it's hard to see Argentina's first ever Rugby Championship victory happening here. New Zealand by 18.

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