Argentina face by far their most difficult challenge in the newly-formed Rugby Championship, as they travel to Wellington to face the undisputed World Champions New Zealand tomorrow (8.35am BST, Saturday).
The All Blacks are red-hot 1/50 favourites for this match and will be expecting a comfortable victory as they look to tighten their grip on the competition. But there are some good bets to be had nevertheless.
This contest has been given extra spice by the fact that former World Cup winning New Zealand coach Graham Henry has taken up a post as technical advisor for Argentina. Seeing Graham Henry with the opposition will only spur new Coach Steve Hansen on more. He will want to prove that New Zealand have improved since their victory over France in the World Cup Final last October.
New Zealand boast the longest home unbeaten run in World rugby, having not lost there since South Africa beat them in September 2009, a whopping three years ago. Since then, they have only twice looked in danger of being beaten: once in the world cup final and once earlier this year when they needed a late Dan Carter drop goal to see off a determined Irish side. The All Blacks are in ominous form, having beaten Australia home and away in recent weeks. After beating Australia 22-0 two weeks ago, Hansen admitted they were upset with their performance. Argentina beware!
The All Blacks have once again made a number of changes, due to injuries and tactical selections, however none of them seem to make the side any weaker. Obviously there is no way to replace Sonny Bill Williams and his voyage to Japan would leave a gaping hole in any team.
They are able to welcome back Conrad Smith into the crucial outside centre position. New Zealand’s best performance of the year so far came when they thrashed Ireland 60-0 and the fly-half in that scintillating performance was Aaron Cruden. He starts again in place of the injured Dan Carter. Elsewhere in the backline Julian Savea replaces Hosea Gear, whilst in the pack Victor Vito, Brodie Retallick and Tony Woodcock come in for Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock and Wyatt Crockett.
Argentina looked out of their depth in their opening Rugby Championship match against South Africa, but recovered well to draw the return fixture in Mendoza. Argentina really should have won that game, as their forwards put in a magnificent performance to nullify the massive South African pack. Only a charge-down try from Frans Steyn stole a maiden victory from the home side.
Argentina will need that same ferocity from their pack again, and they are able to welcome back the experienced Juan Manuel Leguizamon into their back row in place of Alvaro Galindo. Argentina also see the return of their star fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez. A super-human performance is needed from the Racing Metro player if Argentina are going to get close to the All Blacks.
New Zealand played Argentina in the quarter-final stage of their World Cup winning campaign last October. That day New Zealand won 33-10, but until just after half-time, there was only a point in it as Argentina scored the first try of the game. New Zealand did emerge as comfortable winners, but they knew they had been in a scrap, and they will be expecting the same.
New Zealand would be wise to stretch the game as much as they can, as the Argentine pack is by far their strongest suit. Argentina will want a tight, forward-dominated game and as they don’t score too many tries, they don’t tend to use their backs at all. Argentina rely heavily on a strong kicking game, however against the best counter attackers in world rugby, be careful.
New Zealand are not about to let a three-year unbeaten home record go, and unless Argentina start well, things could get ugly for the South American’s.