Will it be 12th time the charm for the Pumas?
The possibility of the Pumas breaking their Rugby Championship duck against the Wallabies in Rosario on Saturday adds some spice to the wooden spoon battle.
With all and sundry eagerly anticipation the Rugby Championship decider between the Springboks and the All Blacks in Johannesburg on Saturday, the match between Argentina and Australia is an afterthought in most rugby enthusiasts’ minds.
It’s not a complete dead rubber, though, as it will be the Pumas’ best chance yet to claim their maiden win in the four-nation tournament, while the embattled Wallabies will be determined to avoid the wooden spoon.
Off-field drama has compounded the Wallabies’ woes in the lead-up to Saturday’s match with No.8 Ben Mowen reportedly locked in a payment dispute with the Australian Rugby Union and utility back James O’Connor seeing his Wallaby contract torn up due to disciplinary issues - hardly ideal circumstances for an already struggling outfit.
The Pumas’ winless record suggests that they, too, are in dire straits, but that’s certainly not the case. They’ve shown marked improvement in this their second season in the southern hemisphere showpiece and were ‘winners’ in defeat against the All Blacks in La Plata last weekend.
Santiago Phelan’s charges smashed the world champions at scrum time and their scrummaging prowess could lead to the Wallabies’ downfall.
They’ve been found wanting on attack, where a lack of tries has hurt their progress, but with a dominant scrum that can serve as an attacking weapon, they could keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalties.
Tighthead Ben Alexander said the Wallaby pack, who’ve been indifferent in the scrums this campaign, are well aware that they’ll face the full brunt of the Bajada.
"They have identified that area as a strength of theirs and that's where they want to ram home that advantage and so it's up to us to nullify that strength," Alexander told the Daily Telegraph.
Alexander – who acknowledged the Pumas’ proficiency in the set-piece – felt that the visitors will be better equipped for the contest after the teams’ most recent encounter.
"They're what we want to chase in scrummaging, they're very consistent which is something we've lacked," he said.
"We scrummed well against them in the first half in Perth but in the second half, that first 20 minutes after half-time, we took our foot off the pedal and they then started to dish us and got them right back in the game. Hopefully it's a lesson learned for the whole forward pack this Saturday."
The Argentineans have outclassed all three SANZAR giants in the set-piece due in large part to their technical expertise on the second shove, but Alexander felt their success came down to attitude.
"It is just a mentality. They are not bigger or stronger. They want to scrum for longer. It is all mental," he said.
"They are all the same height, if you watch them. They're not lower, they're not any bigger, any heavier. They just mentally want to scrum for longer. They're very patient, so it is about being patient, wanting to scrum for longer. It's just a mental thing."
Alexander added that like the match as a whole, the scrum battle will be all about pride. "They don't care if they lose the game as long as they have won at scrum time - it is a badge of honour for them," he said.
"It is a pride thing for us too. We are not happy with the way our scrum has been going. We took some steps in the right direction [against the Springboks] at the weekend, but for us it is about consistency and about putting the performance out instead of talking about it."
Players to watch:
For Argentina: Felipe Contepomi returns to the run-on side for what will be the 87th Test of his illustrious career. The Pumas realise they are on the cusp of clinching a historic win and will want nothing more than to give the 36-year-old legend a proper send-off in what will probably be his final Rugby Championship match. Another veteran, Patricio Albacete, brought stability to the Pumas’ line-out last weekend and will look to continue where he left off in La Plata. Nicolás Sánchez’s goal-kicking as well as his decision-making will be crucial, Juan Manuel Leguizamón will be looked upon to provide go-forward and multi-talented skipper Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe’s all-action game will once again make his a prominent figure.
For Australia: Will Genia will be the key man for the visitors. It will be his responsibility to inject some much-needed attacking zest and unpredictability into the side like he did off the bench against the Springboks last weekend. With the Pumas likely to target the breakdown, it’ll be imperative that Genia is quick to clear from the rucks. Israel Folau has a point to prove and having been given more freedom by Ewen McKenzie this week, the mercurial League convert will look to unlock the Pumas’ defence. Quade Cooper is bound to have some tricks up his sleeve, Ben Mowen will want to prove that he’s worthy of a top-up national deal and Michael Hooper will be eager to cap an impressive campaign with another top performance. Replacement props Benn Robinson and Sekope Kepu will have important roles to play in the scrum when they come on, while Bernard Foley could make his Test debut in the No.23 jersey.
Head to head: With the match set to be won and lost up front, the battle between Marcos Ayerza, Eusebio Guiñazú and Juan Pablo Orlandi and James Slipper, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander will be vital. The late withdrawal of Juan Figallo due to a back injury is a blow for the hosts but they should still rule at scrum time. Of equal importance will be the dispute for possession pitting Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, Pablo Matera and Juan Manuel Leguizamón against Scott Fardy, fetcher extraordinaire Michael Hooper and Ben Mowen.
2013: Australia won 14-13, Perth
2012: Australia won 25-19, Rosario
2012: Australia won 23-19, Gold Coast
2003: Australia won 24-8, Sydney
2002: Australia won 17-6, Buenos Aires
2000: Australia won 32-25, Canberra
2000: Australia won 53-6, Brisbane
1997: Argentina won 18-16, Buenos Aires
1997: Australia won 23-15, Buenos Aires
Prediction: The selection of Genia signals that the Wallabies will adopt an expansive approach and the conditions will be conducive for such a tactic. It’s the right call on McKenzie’s part, but it’s not without risk, handling errors - given the strength of the Pumas scrum - and possible territorial naivety topping the list. For Genia and company to shine, however, they’ll need quick, clean ball and given the form of the settled Argentine back row, that could be hard to come by. Add Argentina’s ability in the set pieces and it becomes clear that Australia are in for an arm-wrestle. Much like when they play Wales, the Wallabies in their last three encounters against the Pumas found a way to win despite not having things their own way. History suggests the visitors will eke out another narrow win, but due to their uncompromising pack and superb scrum, I’m tipping the Pumas to register their first Rugby Championship win by three points.
Argentina: 15 Juan Martín Hernández, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Felipe Contepomi, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamón, 7 Pablo Matera, 6 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe (captain), 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Julio Farías Cabello, 3 Juan Pablo Orlandi, 2 Eusebio Guiñazú, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Agustín Creevy, 17 Nahuel Lobo, 18 Matias Diaz, 19 Manuel Carizza, 20 Benjamín Macome, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago Fernández, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
Australia: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Will Genia, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Scott Fardy, 5 James Horwill (captain), 4 Rob Simmons, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 James Slipper.
Replacements: 16 Saia Faingaa, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Sekope Kepu, 19 Sitaleki Timani, 20 Ben McCalman, 21 Nic White, 22 Matt Toomua, 23 Bernard Foley.
Date: Saturday, October 5
Venue: Estadio Gigante de Arroyito, Rosario
Kick-off: 19.40 (22.40 GMT; 09.40 Sunday, October 6, EDT Australia)
Expected weather: Clear, 10°C and a 6km/h north-easterly wind.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld