Preview: Argentina v New Zealand
RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP, ROUND FIVE: New Zealand tackle Argentina in Buenos Aires Saturday, seeking a Rugby Championship Round Five win that will move them closer to a world-record 18 consecutive Test victories.
Should they succeed at the Estadio Jose Amalfitani, the All Blacks will then need to beat South Africa away on October 8 and Australia at home on October 22 to rewrite the record books.
New Zealand twice and South Africa once have won 17 internationals in a row, with Australia playing party-poopers through a win and a draw each time the All Blacks sought to win 18 Tests on the trot.
The giants in the black strip, winners of the World Cup a record three times, started the latest winning streak with a 41-13 hammering of the Wallabies in August last year.
Since that triumph, they have beaten Australia a further three times, Wales three times, South Africa and Argentina twice each and Namibia, Georgia, Tonga and France once each.
Many of the All Blacks' victories have been by wide margins - with a 62-13 thrashing of the French in a 2015 World Cup quarterfinal the most one-sided.
Argentina proved stubborn group opponents to New Zealand during the same tournament in England, leading for much of a game they eventually lost 16-26 in London.
When the teams met this month in Hamilton, the Pumas matched the All Blacks for 50 minutes before collapsing and finishing 22-57 losers.
While New Zealand currently appear invincible, star flyhalf Beauden Barrett stressed that Argentina are a rising world rugby force.
"The Pumas challenged us for 50 minutes and if they can play like that for an entire match, it will be very difficult for us to beat them," he told a Buenos Aires media conference.
"They rank among the top teams - we saw that at the World Cup last year when they reached the semifinals.
"Argentina have always been big and strong, now they are skilful as well and play a nice brand of rugby," said the 25-year-old successor to legend Dan Carter, who retired last year.
With the Rugby Championship title secure two rounds from the finish after four bonus-point victories, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has rested some regular starters.
He changed four of the Kieran Read-skippered team that began a 41-13 demolition of South Africa in Christchurch two weekends ago.
In come centre Anton Lienart-Brown, scrumhalf TJ Perenara, lock Patrick Tuipulotu and flank Liam Squire for Malakai Fekitoa, Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock and the injured Jerome Kaino.
Argentina, beaten 36-20 in Australia in round 4, will look to a hoped-for 50,000 crowd to inspire captain Agustin Creevy and a team boasting star half-backs Nicolas Sanchez and Martin Landajo..
"New Zealand are the best team in the world and we have prepared to the best of our ability," said Daniel Hourcade, the coach credited with making the Pumas a stronger all-round team.
"Good though the All Blacks are, playing them does not intimidate us - it motivates us."
Players to watch:
For Argentina: Martín Landajo, back in the starting XV, also gets the captaincy armband. He will play a vital role - both in terms of leadership and his creative skills. No.8 Facundo Isa has become a player you must watch and will enjoy watching because of his energy and raw power.
For New Zealand: With an almost experimental nature to the team you would look at players like Liam Squire in his first Test start at blindside flank, lock Patrick Tuipulotu, centre Anton Lienert-Brown and scrumhalf TJ Perenara. However, the guy everybody would like to see get plenty of game time is replacement fullback Damian McKenzie - for the excitement he ca bring to he game.
Head to head: You start with the two best No.8s in the world - Facundo Isa (Argentina) against Kieran Read New Zealand). However, there are so much more excitement across the park - Matías Moroni and Santiago González Iglesias (Argentina) against Anton Lienert-Brown and Ryan Crotty (New Zealand) in the midfield. Or Nicolás Sánchez and Martín Landajo (Argentina) against Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara (New Zealand) at in the halfback positions. There is so much more.
2016: New Zealand won 57-22, Hamilton
2015: New Zealand won 26-16, London (World Cup pool match)
2015: New Zealand won 39-18, Christchurch
2014: New Zealand won 34-13, La Plata
2014: New Zealand won 28-9, Napier
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)
Statistical review: New Zealand have won their last 21 games against the Pumas, their only blemish in 27 previous encounters being a 21-21 draw in November 1985. Each of the Pumas' last six games on home soil have been won by the team leading at half-time, three of which have gone in favour of Argentina. The All Blacks have now won the Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations 14 times in the 21 editions since the tournament began in 1996; it is their fourth title in the last five years. New Zealand have scored a joint record 24 tries in this tournament (also 24 in 2013), one more and they will hold the standalone record for most tries in a Rugby Championship/Tri-Nations campaign. The All Blacks have won their last 15 Test matches, one more win would equal their third longest winning run, with the longest ever winning run by a tier one team standing at 17 games (New Z Zealand 1965 to '69 and 2013 to '14, South Africa 1997 to 1998). New Zealand have the best tackle success rate (90 percent), line-out success rate (93 percent) and scrum success rate (90 percent) in this year's edition of the competition. Nicolas Sanchez has scored 48 points so far this tournament; the most of any player who is yet cross for a try and second most overall. Top point scorer Beauden Barrett (54) has also provided more try assists (four) than any other player in this edition of the tournament. Just two players have made over 250 metres with the ball in hand in The Rugby Championship this year, Ben Smith (257) and Facundo Isa (251). Agustin Creevy has won more turnovers (7) than any other player in this tournament, in fact since the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup only David Pocock (26) has won more than the Argentina captain in international rugby (20, same as Francois Louw).
Prediction: Does anybody expect Argentina to win, other than the most staunch Puma supporters? Of course, Argentina can and may win. They are also likely to keep it tight for the first half, but we feel - as they so often do - New Zealand will cut lose in the final quarter and win by 15 to 20 points.
Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com
*Statistics provided by Opt Sport