The rain is always a leveller
New Zealand are downplaying their heavy favouritism tag for Saturday's Rugby Championship Test against Argentina, pointing to forecasted heavy rain as wiping out any foregone conclusions.
By rights, the All Blacks - as the world's top ranked side - should be far too strong for the 12th ranked Argentineans, who remain winless after 14 matches since being included in the Southern Hemisphere competition in 2012.
But while the All Blacks have never lost to Argentina, a narrowing of results show the powerful South Americans are improving, and the wet conditions have shaped this clash as a battle of the packs - which would be playing into their hands.
Two weeks back, the unbeaten All Blacks thrashed the Wallabies 51-20 on a dry ground in Auckland, but they struggled to escape with a 12-all draw the previous week against the Australians in heavy rain in Sydney.
"The rain is always a leveller and we saw that in Sydney, where it was very wet, and some of our skill work dropped to a level that made that game a real bunfight," assistant coach Ian Foster said.
All Blacks scrum coach Mike Cron also sounded a warning, describing Argentina's scrum as "their DNA", noting they "hammered South Africa" in their previous two Tests - before going down 13-6 away and then 33-31 at home.
Although the All Blacks run-on pack have proved solid, their set-piece dominance came unstuck when the replacements were unleashed off the bench in the final 20 minutes of the two Australian Tests.
This has forced head coach Steve Hansen to add specialist lock Jeremy Thrush and prop Joe Moody, a former New Zealand wrestling international, to shore up the bench in place of utility Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina.
The scrum has not been the only focal point for the All Blacks this week, as they have also focused on Argentina's rapidly developing kicking game with the lesson learned in the Sydney rain not to counter-attack with long-range passes.
Head coach Steve Hansen also spoke about having "respect" for this Argentinean team.
"Their last two performances against South Africa have been right up there and shows that they are capable of beating top opposition," Hansen said.
"The other challenge this week is on ourselves to repeat and improve on the performance against Australia," he said of the 51-20 win in Sydney.
"That is about every individual - from the coaches to the players and management - being totally accountable for their roles within the team throughout the week and getting our preparation bone deep and genuine, both physically and mentally."
The All Blacks have played Argentina 22 times since 1976, winning 21 matches, with Argentina's best performance a 21-all draw in 1985.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: The return of Israel Dagg at fullback will naturally put a portion of the spotlight on him, while the move of Ben Smith from No.15 to the right wing will not diminish the strike power of the back three. Beauden Barrett, in his first start at flyhalf, will have a massive role to play in what is expected to be very testing conditions. The pack includes he usual suspects - Kieran Reid, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Dane Coles.
For Argentina: Fullback Joaquín Tuculet has grown in stature in the past year and will have a vital role to play in the last line of defence. Flyhalf Nicolás Sánchez will be the kingpin that must drive the Pumas if they are to cause an upset. The loose trio of Leonardo Senatore - who returned this week - Juan Manuel Leguizamón and Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe will have to provide the muscle.
Head to head: There are many intriguing contests all the way through the team-sheets - starting at fullback, where Israel Dagg (New Zealand) will be up against Joaquín Tuculet (Argentina). However, the key contest - given the expected conditions - will be at flyhalf, where Beauden Barrett (New Zealand) gets his first start and is opposed by the more seasoned Nicolás Sánchez (Argentina). And then there is the delectable breakdown contest between Richie McCaw (New Zealand) and Juan Manuel Leguizamón (Argentina).
2013: New Zealand won 33-15, La Plata
2013: New Zealand won 28-13, Hamilton
2012: New Zealand won 54-15, La Plata
2012: New Zealand won 21-5, Wellington
2011: New Zealand won 33-10, Auckland (World Cup quarterfinal)
2006: New Zealand won 25-19, Buenos Aires
2004: New Zealand won 41-7, Hamilton
2001: New Zealand won 24-20, Buenos Aires
2001: New Zealand won 67-19, Christchurch
1997: New Zealand won 62-10, Hamilton
Prediction: New Zealand are unbeaten in 19 matches, their third best run of its kind. They went unbeaten in 20 matches between 2011 and 2012 and 23 between 1987 and 1990, a world record. New Zealand's current 34-match home winning streak is a world record and currently at least 12 matches longer than any other side has managed (they also won 30 consecutive home internationals between 2003 and 2008). Argentina have not finished within 14 points of the All Blacks in any of their last five meetings. New Zealand have scored at least two tries in all 18 meetings with the Pumas (which includes 17 victories and a draw), averaging 5.4 per game. Two tries in this match would take them to 100 against Argentina. Half of Argentina's 14 matches in the Rugby Championship have seen a final points difference of seven or fewer points (one draw and 13 defeats). No side has beaten more defenders than Argentina (31) so far in this year's tournament (same as Australia). New Zealand have won twice as many turnovers (18) as the Pumas (9) so far in the 2014 edition of the tournament. However, the All Blacks have shipped more penalties/free-kicks (27) than any other side and Argentina the fewest (19). Statistics sometimes mean nothing, but there are two vital stats here - New Zealand's incredible home record and the fact that Argentina have never beaten them - which could point to a lack of self-belief. We feel the All Blacks will again have the edge and in a wet Napier will win by between 10 to 15 points.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Liam Messam, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Joe Moody, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Malakai Fekitoa.
Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Lucas González Amorosino, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamón, 6 Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Mariano Galarza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (captain), 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Matías Cortese, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Rodrigo Báez, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Juan Imhoff.
Date: Saturday, September 6
Venue: McLean Park, Napier
Kick-off: 19.35 (04.35 Argentina time; 07.35 GMT)
Expected weather: Occasional rain, with fresh southerly winds developing. High of 16°C and a low of 9°C
Referee: Pascal Gauzère (France)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
TMO: Peter Marshall (Australia)
AFP & rugby365