Buenos Aires: Argentina are looking to maintain the momentum from the Jaguares’ remarkable Super Rugby season as they bid for a first ever victory over New Zealand when the Rugby Championship kicks-off on Saturday.
Just two months before the start of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, reigning champions the All Blacks have named five uncapped players in the 23-man matchday squad as coach Steve Hansen looks at some of his potential options.
Hansen has rested eight players from the Super Rugby-winning Canterbury Crusaders, a luxury that Pumas coach Mario Ledesma could not afford as all but five of his squad play for the Jaguares.
Ledesma has named 13 players that started the Jaguares’ 19-3 Super Rugby final defeat to New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders.
The former Jaguares coach said Argentina have only learnt from their rivals and the franchise system that has served New Zealand rugby so well.
“They’ve been professional for many years, they’ve been dealing with this kind of thing for much longer,” said Ledesma of the All Blacks.
“It’s only recently that we’ve been seeing the new generation, like what happened this year in Super Rugby and with the Pumas, who are all lads from the system.
“They’re all lads trained here, who play here, who weren’t developed anywhere else and who are the first such generations we’re seeing.”
Only Stade Francais fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, Argentina’s all-time record points-scorer, and Saracens prop Juan Figallo have been added to a Jaguares team that won 11 of its final 13 matches during the Super Rugby season.
“We have the utmost respect for Argentina. We know that we’ll be facing a confident, physical side,” said Hansen.
“Their players will have taken a lot of confidence and self-belief from the Jaguares Super Rugby season, and with the inclusion of their overseas players, there will be added excitement to their group.
“They will see this game as a massive opportunity to make a statement and it will be our job to make a statement of our own.”
Hansen has picked one Crusaders player in debutant Sevu Reece, a 22-year-old Fijian-born wing.
He’s been rewarded for a stunning 15-try Super Rugby season, while there will be four more uncapped players on the bench.
With skipper Kieran Read among the rested Crusaders, flanker Sam Cane will wear the armband, for only the third time in his 61-Test career.
Auckland Blues pair Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane miss out, the former due to a hamstring strain while the latter is being rested.
Utility back Braydon Ennor, halfback Josh Ioane, loose forward Luke Jacobson and prop Atu Moli are the four debutants on the bench.
‘Test matches are different’
Argentina may never get a better chance to defeat New Zealand — the only Tier One side the Pumas have never beaten.
A solitary 21-21 draw in 1985 sits among 27 defeats. The closest they’ve come since joining the Rugby Championship was a 26-16 scoreline at the World Cup four years ago.
All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith has warned Argentina not to read too much into the Jaguares fine run.
“Their results in Super Rugby would say they are going to have a really good opportunity. But I believe Test matches are different,” said the Highlanders half-back.
“It’s going to be a hard game. It’s called a Test match for a reason.”
While the Jaguares were rampant in 2018, the Pumas have been toothless in recent years.
Since their impressive fourth-placed finish at the last World Cup, the Pumas have won just eight of 37 internationals — two of which came against second tier Georgia and Japan.
They’ve also finished bottom of all but one of the seven Rugby Championships they’ve competed in.
“From the ‘Haka’ they’re trying to impose a challenge,” Ledesma said of the All Blacks.
“So we have to strike the first blow and it must us who do something first.”
Next week, New Zealand will host South Africa in Wellington while Argentina travel to Brisbane to face Australia.