New Zealand are favourites to win their 17th title Rugby Championship title but their main focus will be getting their selection and tactics right for the World Cup in September.
They have not brought their best rugby to the tournament in the lead-up to the last two World Cups, allowing Australia to claim the Championship in 2011 and 2015.
However, the All Blacks went on to win rugby’s biggest prize both those years and New Zealand fans will hardly be alarmed if they miss out in this Rugby Championship.
Argentina vs New Zealand
July 20, 2019, 7:00pm
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Coach Steve Hansen has named an extended squad of 39 players for the opening two matches of the Rugby Championship to test his less experienced players against the Pumas in Buenos Aires and rest the majority of the Super-Rugby winning Crusaders.
He is likely to name his top side, with a host of Crusaders forwards recalled, for the July 27 showdown with the Springboks in Wellington, which will double up as an important marker for the sides’ Pool B World Cup opener in Yokohama on Sept 21.
Hansen has selected a mostly young and fast backline for the tournament and will also see how the new recruits will handle the Test arena.
We already know about the talents of Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane however this will give us the chance to see what George Bridge, Braydon Ennor and Sevu Reece – more on him later – can do to claim a spot for the World Cup.
Will we finally get to see Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett in the same starting line-up? Mo’unga has been in sublime form for the Crusaders, and while he won’t be in contention for the Pumas, there are strong calls for Barrett to move to full-back with Mo’unga at fly-half.
As always, the All Blacks will bring a powerful forward game with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock bringing more than just the grunt to the second row.
Their back row will need some tweaking though – especially with flanker Liam Squire ruling himself out of the Championship due to a lack of match fitness.
Sam Cane will skipper the All Blacks against the Pumas as Kieran Read will be rested. This means that Ardie Savea could finally push his claim for a starting berth at No 8, especially with the incumbent Read not quite hitting his straps this campaign.
Another area that Hansen will look at will be midfield. Sonny Bill Williams looks certain to miss out on Saturday’s clash with a tight hamstring – yet another blow to his injury-ravaged season.
With Ryan Crotty out with a broken thumb and Crusaders Jack Goodhue rested, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape look like the centre partnership for their opening game.
Laumape has been in good form for the Hurricanes and will want to show how much he has developed after missing out in the 2018 Rugby Championship squad – despite being called up later as injury cover.
On rugby alone, Reece certainly deserves his selection as he has been a try-scoring machine with 15 for the Crusaders.
However, Hansen was forced to defend his selection of Reece after the Crusaders winger was charged with “male assaults female”, the New Zealand legal term for spousal abuse, after injuring his wife in a drunken assault last year.
Reece was not convicted because the judge who heard his case considered there were mitigating circumstances and a conviction would have a detrimental effect on his professional career.
Hansen said the Crusaders and All Blacks were well-placed to provide the “rehabilitation” Reece needs to overcome anger and violence.
“He’s come into an environment in the Crusaders where they’ve put a lot of things around him that have helped educate him, they’ve helped him understand that to be a good person you have to do certain things and by doing that he’s shown a lot of remorse for what he’s done,” Hansen said.
“He’s been actively trying to better himself and also when he comes into our environment we already have a policy that better people make better All Blacks so we continue that with each and every individual we’ve got.”
End of an era
This will be the last Rugby Championship for Hansen who announced he will be stepping down after the World Cup. Hansen’s predecessor is yet to be announced but he will be a tough act to follow with a win ratio of 89 per cent after losing just eight of 96 Tests.
Hansen is not he only one to be leaving as there is a big group heading to play their club rugby elsewhere which will have an impact on the club scene in New Zealand.
Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Ryan Crotty and Liam Squire have all signed for Japanese clubs, while Ben Smith is off to Pau and fellow World Cup winner Nehe Milner-Skudder to Toulon.
However, New Zealand’s strength and depth is the gift that keeps on giving and they have plenty of new talent waiting in the wings to take up the All Black mantle. This campaign could well be the first glimpse of what the future holds after the World Cup.
Vulnerable in Argentina?
The Pumas believe that they will never have a better chance to claim a first win ever against the All Blacks than in the opening match at Velez Sarsfield.
All 15 of the Jaguares’ starting line-up in the Super Rugby final who lost to the Crusaders earlier this month are in the 30-man squad that Mario Ledesma named against New Zealand, who they have never beaten in 28 meetings.
There are also five players who helped Argentina reach the semi-finals of the World Cup in England four years ago including fly-half Nicolas Sanchez, wing Santiago Cordero and back row Facundo Isa.
The closest Argentina have come to beating the New Zealand was back in 1985 where they battled to a 21-21 draw in Buenos Aires, and Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith has warned that the Pumas will need to raise their game if they want to break that duck.
“Their results in Super Rugby would say they are going to have a really good opportunity. But I believe Test matches are different,” Smith said.
“They are going to have a different team, as well, a few new players coming in. And we are going to have our strongest team out there as well.
“It’s going to be a hard game. It’s called a Test match for a reason. So, yeah, take what you will from that.”
History also awaits New Zealand – a win on Saturday would rack up their 450th win – 43 more than any other side, and if they just need 26 points to become the first nation to score 16,000 international points.