Pumas' reputation at stake against All Blacks

Argentina need to put on a good performance when they play the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship in New Plymouth on Saturday. If they can’t get up for this Test, there are bound to be questions asked about why they are a part of the competition at all.

They should be capable of better than what they have been producing. Only two years ago they were in the top four sides in the world and while the Rugby Championship has been a one-horse race for the last couple of years, there have been a few signs to suggest South Africa and Australia are capable of an upward turn. South Africa are now playing much better rugby while, in Dunedin 10 days ago, we saw that you can never write off the Australians.

But the Pumas are already looking like the wooden spoon team for 2017.

That’s a shame because they are capable of playing with Latin flair. They can throw the ball around and when it gels it can result in some outstanding rugby. It is not necessarily planned, is often spontaneous and they can be dangerous in that sense.

A lot of it can depend on what frame of mind the Argentines turn up in. There was a novelty value about the Pumas when they first joined the competition, but they need to be performing more consistently than they have achieved to date. We need them to move up a gear. Having just the one team in the Super Rugby competition makes it tough because you need competition for places to lift the standards and they don’t have that.

You would have expected them to have shown the benefits of the Jaguares’ two-year involvement in Super Rugby, but we’re not seeing that.

And no matter which way you look at it, Argentina is a long way from anywhere. Apart from the fact they need to fly in one direction to go to South Africa and then another to New Zealand and Australia, there is the fact that if they were to play in Europe they would also have to fly long distances. They can’t win in that regard. But we do know from history that they will be tough at home.

It is going to be interesting in New Plymouth but I think the All Blacks will be feeling some concern from their performance against the Wallabies.

There will be an opportunity for some different players to get a start. I can’t see it being the same All Blacks team that ran out for their last game. I think if Steve Hansen is going to try some new players it will be in this game. A home Test against the Pumas would be the one to try some new faces the way things have been going this season.

Hansen has a really good squad to work with, and he is developing players with the future in mind which he has to do after losing such a wealth of experience after the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The new players have to be given an opportunity. With that in mind I think this weekend is a chance for the All Blacks to make a statement.

The Pumas scrum will be interesting, especially after South Africa took them apart. Traditionally the Pumas have been strong in scrummaging but I am sure the All Blacks will be looking to continue the fine set-piece work they showed against the Australians in Dunedin.

And I think there is too much consistent strength in the All Blacks backline and too much firepower for Argentina to be able to handle it.

I think the All Blacks will want to keep their backline largely intact, especially in the midfield where combinations need time to develop. Sonny Bill Williams has missed a few games and not played a lot of rugby and his combination with Ryan Crotty is really, really strong.

Anton Lienert-Brown, meanwhile, played against the British & Irish Lions and looked fantastic. Is it worth giving him a start in this game? He’s a young man with a big future, and one who has already proven himself at Test level.

Elsewhere, I would be tempted to start Ardie Savea in this game and give Sam Cane the chance to have some more time to get over his head injury. But it will be interesting to see what they do.

Away from the Test scene, the Mitre 10 Cup has this year been producing a quality of rugby better than what we have seen for some time. I put it down to the combination of exciting stars of the future emerging and the benefits of players returning from overseas to provide their experience. It has lifted the standard by some margin and there have been some outstanding games.

North Harbour unleashed their potential on the back of winning the Championship last year and played really well to beat Auckland 57-10. Auckland were diabolical. That was one of the worst performances I have seen from an Auckland team. Some of their players are not up to it, they are not at that level.

There’s no excuse for it given the resources they have got. Auckland face a huge game against Taranaki this weekend. There will be serious discussions at board level about the situation Auckland are in. They need a performance this weekend to demonstrate they are up to it. Otherwise it is going to be all about damage control.

One thing that has become obvious, especially with the issues the Blues have had at first five-eighth, is that since Bryn Gatland has turned up he has played a big hand in transforming the North Harbour side. The No.10 is the driver of your team and Gatland has been outstanding.

It is the same with Stephen Perofeta at Taranaki and Otere Black doing all right for Manawatu; Blues coach Tana Umaga is not going to want for ability at first five-eighth next year.

Meanwhile, on another issue, it was interesting to see reaction to the application of the new laws in northern hemisphere rugby at the weekend. Stuart Barnes made the comment that it was good to see ‘plenty of aggressive rucking’ in games after players got themselves on the wrong side of the tackle at the breakdown.

If that continues it will excite a lot of people. That is something, if it continues to develop, that it will clean up the breakdown and we’ll get a much better spectacle that will be easier to understand. Fingers crossed on that one.