Write the Pumas off at your own peril
As a Pumas fan, I am under no illusions how difficult Argentina’s match-up against the All Blacks will be, come Sunday evening.
Bar ‘Richie McCow’ (the Rugby World Cup’s equivalent to FIFA’s Paul, the Octopus), many pundits believe that the Pumas will succumb to the mighty New Zealand in the last of the quarter-finals to be played this weekend.
Indeed, it is easy to justify the All Blacks’ heavy favouritism, heading into their match against Argentina.
Of the 17 matches played between the nations thus far, New Zealand has won 16 times. The closest Argentina have come to a win against Graham Henry’s men was way back in 1985, when an inspired Hugo Porta led the Pumas to a 21-all draw against the All Blacks in Buenos Aires.
The Pumas’ mounting injury list also suggests a comfortable New Zealand victory.
While the Kiwis themselves are without influential playmaker Dan Carter, Argentina heads into the quarter-final without several key players; including Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Martin Hernandez.
Lobbe and Hernandez were one of the main pillars behind the Pumas’ stunning performance at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, and they will be heavily missed against New Zealand.
Argentina’s most recent performance against Georgia also has All Blacks pundits feeling confident of a Kiwi victory.
The Pumas were erratic in their 25-7 win over Georgia last Sunday, with their backline in particular failing to spark any attacking plays of note, until late in the contest.
If Argentina replicates their performance against Georgia, New Zealand will most likely post a comfortable victory against their Latin American counterparts.
All in all, logic suggests that the All Blacks should already start preparing for a semi-final showdown with either the Springboks or the Wallabies, given the majority believe that a New Zealand victory against Argentina is a formality.
But a word of caution for the All Blacks.
While I too believe that an Argentina victory this weekend appears unlikely, I also believe that the Pumas have the potential to give the All Blacks an almighty scare at their Eden Park fortress.
It is a matter of fact that Argentina has nothing to lose and everything to gain from their quarter-final meeting against New Zealand.
With this in mind, Pumas captain Felipe Contepomi and head coach Santiago Phelan must encourage Argentina to stay within reach of the All Blacks for as long as possible.
Indeed, the longer the match stays close, the better it will be for Argentina, given that a narrow loss to the All Blacks should be considered a victory for Pumas rugby anyway.
No doubt Argentina’s pack presents the key to keeping the All Blacks within reach throughout the 80 minutes.
Pumas players such as Mario Arocena Ledesma and Juan Manuel Leguizamon in particular, will have to lead the way admirably against an All Blacks pack that makes do with renowned figures such as Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino.
Argentina’s chances against New Zealand also rest on how well they are able to incorporate their talented backline into the contest.
In their opening 13-9 loss to England, Argentina’ backline caused the English, significant problems during the second half, with Marcelo Bosh, Gonzalo Camacho and Martin Rodriguez all registering line breaks against the Six Nations champions.
Against Scotland, replacement fullback Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino also demonstrated superb agility and speed in slippery conditions to score the match-winning try which secured a vital 13-12 victory against the Scottish.
While the preceding backline players will be vital for the Pumas come Sunday evening, I believe Juan Jose Imhoff is the man that potentially holds the x-factor against the All Blacks.
Indeed not many would be aware of Imhoff and his talent. But in the matches that I have seen him play for the Pumas thus far at the World Cup, he has impressed me greatly.
The 23-year-old winger has scored two tries in the tournament so far (against Georgia and Romania respectively), but it’s his ability to fend off his opposition and set up his backline that makes him a player to keep an eye on.
Against England, Imhoff replaced the injured Gonzalo Tiesi, and he was particularly dangerous, late in the match, when he fended off two English defenders near the touchline to spark an attacking raid.
Personally, I think Imhoff is Argentina’s version of rugby league’s Greg Inglis.
It is a big call but the fend, speed and overall strength that he demonstrated during the group stages suggests that he has the makings of a player destined to become one of Argentina’s most important figures throughout the next decade.
In short, Imhoff is Argentine rugby’s best kept secret – a secret that could be unleashed much to the detriment of the All Blacks, if Phelan decides to start the 23-year-old.
Overall, the Pumas face a massive mountain to climb if they are to conquer rugby’s Everest. The All Blacks will start as deserved favourites and will most likely progress to the World Cup semi-finals.
But Argentina should be viewed as a dangerous proposition for any side, let alone one as illustrious as the All Blacks.
If the Pumas can go toe to toe with New Zealand’s pack and provide good ball to the likes of Imhoff and company, then their chances of producing one of world sports’ great upsets, will significantly increase.