Opinion: All Blacks face up to the dual challenges of Argentina and an emotional reset as history warns of pitfalls

Geoff Parkes
All Blacks huddle before Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Ireland.

All Blacks huddle before Rugby World Cup quarter-final against Ireland.

Last week, in the lead-up to New Zealand’s quarter-final showdown against Ireland, I identified the ability the All Blacks have to set themselves for special, ‘backs to the wall’ challenges, and deliver above expectation.

That’s duly what played out in Paris last Saturday; Ireland set on their heels early, never quite able to make up enough ground to overcome both the All Blacks’ ability to transition rapidly into attack, nor their defensive resolve at the business end.

All sides these days prepare in weekly blocks, the schedule worked backwards from kick-off time, with the various logistical, physical, tactical and mental markers all backloaded into the program.

‘Good’ week for New Zealand

There are ‘short’ weeks, ‘travel’ weeks, ‘light’ weeks, ‘heavy’ weeks, ‘messy’ weeks and ‘good’ weeks. What makes things difficult – and why head coaches are paid the big bucks – is that they must handle a raft of impinging factors; media and sponsor obligations, injury, player workload, the judiciary, the opposition, plus intangibles such as expectation, and the mental attitude players bring, individually and collectively, to the start of each week.

New Zealand had a ‘good’ week last week. And why not? What player and coach wouldn’t relish the idea of ripping into Ireland, particularly after four quiet weeks in the tournament?

But in rugby, as in any sport, it’s impossible to maintain peak performance week on week. Watching Sam Cane’s agonising shuffle from the pitch on Saturday night, one was reminded that even if the mind is willing to back up, the body may take extra cajoling and convincing.

Conversely, for those players whose bodies remain relatively fresh, what is it that will provide them with the edge to sharpen their focus throughout another whole week? That will ensure the scourge of coaches everywhere – comfort and complacency – don’t worm their way into the psyche of the squad?

All of this is a way of pointing out that regardless how much the All Blacks tell themselves that their semi-final against Argentina matters as much as the quarter-final against Ireland mattered, or the final – should they make it that far – will matter, saying it is so doesn’t necessarily make it so.

The All Blacks’ recent record when coming off emotional highs gives cause for concern. The 2019 World Cup quarter-final demolition of Ireland was followed by a flat performance, and an unexpected loss to England in the semi.

Despite two decades of Bledisloe Cup gloom, Australia has tasted success in dead rubbers, the week after New Zealand has successfully retained the trophy for another year.

And notably, the All Blacks’ astonishing win in Johannesburg last year – a last-ditch effort by the players to keep their coach in his job – was followed immediately after by a loss in Christchurch to… you guessed it, Argentina.

Understandably, it’s an issue the All Blacks have jumped straight onto this week, with assistant coaches Scott McLeod and Jason Ryan both acknowledging and addressing how they might go about getting their charges in the right frame of mind for Argentina.

Dane Coles also spoke to the same issue, talking about fear and pointing to 2019 and the “shit week” that was preparing for the third and fourth play-off match. What’s important isn’t so much the particular fear that drives Coles and his teammates, but the fact that there exists a fear and an edge in the first place.

None of this internal focus is intended to diminish Argentina, or imply they are capable of beating the All Blacks only when the All Blacks fail to turn up, and not because of what they bring. That simply isn’t true; the Pumas have the strength, skill and tactical acumen to match it with anybody on their day.

Underdog Pumas

Head coach Michael Cheika – a markedly different, more relaxed and composed individual than from his Wallabies days – has brought this team along nicely in France. And he gets to play both sides of the fence; there is self-belief in spades within his squad, but he will also make sure that his players know they are underdogs and that nobody rates them a chance.

Argentina covered nicely in their quarter-final against Wales the loss of Pablo Matera, courtesy of his stint with the Crusaders and his uncompromising style of play, the Pumas’ player most respected by New Zealand fans. And with Nicolas Sanchez transformed into a ‘finisher’, there is an impressive depth to their bench that hasn’t always been there in the past.

In terms of weeks, Argentina’s schedule, arriving from Marseille a day later than desired, puts them squarely into the ‘short’ week category. That’s less than ideal, and another one of the equity and fairness issues World Rugby needs to get right for next time.

Ironically, what probably hurts Argentina the most however, is last year’s 25-18 win. Any element of surprise is gone, and the match is recent enough, and involved enough of the same players who will take the field on Friday night, to mean that redemption is not something abstract, but is personal.

Yes, the All Blacks have repaid them since – two emphatic statements, 53-3 in Hamilton and 41-12 in Mendoza – but not on the world stage, and not with the promise of a World Cup final at stake.

All things being equal, the All Blacks should have Argentina’s measure, particularly at set-piece. Perhaps their bigger battle is not to get ahead of things, to cross over that line where individual flair and brilliance seeps into arrogance and lairising.

That’s the other difference from last year’s stumble in Christchurch. It’s hard to imagine any side that Joe Schmidt has some kind of influence over, rolling out the party tricks before the foundation work is complete.

The All Blacks will also be well pleased with the appointment of Angus Gardner to referee the fixture. Gardner was on the whistle earlier this year in Mendoza, at times losing patience with the Pumas’ ill-discipline. Of course, everything starts with a clean slate this Friday night, but it is never a bad thing to be familiar and comfortable with a referee’s style.

If this wasn’t a World Cup semi-final I’d be pointing to banana skins laying all over the path to the Stade de France. But it is, and for that reason, New Zealand’s superior experience should be enough to get them into their fifth final.

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