New Zealand can seal a third straight Rugby Championship title on Saturday if they claim victory over Argentina at Estadio Único Ciudad de La Plata.
It is now 21 games unbeaten for the All Blacks, while they boast a record of 32 wins in the 35 Tests since Steve Hansen took over as coach.
That position, of course, used to be Graham Henry’s, who recently stressed that losing an international before next year’s Rugby World Cup in England could turn out to be beneficial to New Zealand. Strange as that might sound from Henry but we actually agree as it could improve them.
Hansen, one imagines, will not feel that way.
Should, as expected, they prevail on Saturday, their Rugby Championship finale against South Africa in Johannesburg will unfortunately not hold the same importance as 2013. We do expect them to claim the title with no losses before tackling Australia in Brisbane for Bledisloe III in October.
If still unbeaten, tough tests will also come in the northern hemisphere as timing of respective seasons will as always be a factor in games. England will be primed after a couple of months of domestic action in the hope of repeating 2012’s win while Wales look to put down a marker, comforted by off-field issues being eased.
Demands from Hansen to avoid defeat are certainly not slipping as an in-house suspension of fly-half Aaron Cruden illustrated that no leeway is going to be given when it comes to discipline. The experienced Cruden – out of character for him – clearly regrets his actions in what was a warning shot fired by the coaching team, with centre Conrad Smith and hooker Keven Mealamu also admitting they were disappointed with Cruden’s actions in Auckland.
Strange as it sounds but this rocket to the rest of the team to keep them on their toes could well be a blessing to future off-field actions. Those who were with Cruden that night before the flight surely have kept their heads down and worked twice as hard in training since.
It does make you wonder though why in this day and age players are drinking at all the week leading up to an important international as this, a possible Rugby Championship sealer.
Amid all the drama, Beauden Barrett has been given another opportunity to prove himself in an untried 10-12 combination with Malakai Fekitoa. This match in La Plata will be hugely important to the latter as he hopes to prove he can offer Hansen a strong and reliable option in both centre positions should Ma’a Nonu, Smith or Ryan Crotty be injured. One waits to see whether Dan Carter will soon be tried one out from ten after his success for the Crusaders.
The Pumas will hope to back up the 50 minutes they put in last year on home soil when they were only 12-14 down before Sam Cane crossed and subsequently New Zealand pulled away through two further scores from Ben Smith. As many are saying, a first win is coming.
Unfortunately for Argentina it is unlikely to be this weekend as a re-focused All Blacks outfit which is on its toes from recent events will look to seal the title in style on Saturday, with Sam Whitelock and Jerome Kaino’s return from injury critical to seeing off this Pumas outfit.
Ones to watch:
For Argentina: Nicolás Sánchez was on Thursday signed by Toulon as a medical joker due to Frédéric Michalak’s injury, joining fellow Puma Juan Martín Hernández in an impending move to the French champions. Sánchez has arguably been the most consistent fly-half during Rugby Championship 2014 – his numbers adding weight to that – as he is an assured playmaker who, alongside El Mago, will be key to the home side’s hopes on Saturday.
For New Zealand: The return of Jerome Kaino is a boost to the All Blacks as he returns in place of Liam Messam on the blindside flank. Meanwhile, captain Richie McCaw will this weekend equal All Blacks great Colin Meads’ record of 133 games for New Zealand. What an achievement that is going to be for McCaw, who at 33 years of age, currently sits joint top of the try-scoring chart in the competition on three scores. Not bad from the openside flanker.
Head-to-head: We look at hooker here as two experienced campaigners meet. Agustín Creevy goes up against Keven Mealamu in what is an intriguing prospect. Creevy and his pack have caused their rivals plenty of problems at scrum time in recent games and he, Ramiro Herrera and Marcos Ayerza will be gunning for their opposites on Saturday. Get on top and their hopes of a shock will increase as it will limit the front-foot ball for Aaron Smith and Barrett. Meanwhile, Marcelo Bosch versus Conrad Smith is always a treat to watch.
2014: New Zealand won 28-9 in Napier
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
Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Juan Imhoff, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Benjamin Macome, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Mariano Galarza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Matías Cortese, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Rodrigo Báez, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Cory Jane.
Date: Saturday, September 27
Venue: Estadio Único Ciudad de La Plata
Kick-off: 19:10 local (23:10 BST, 22:10 GMT)
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)