Argentina’s stunning win over the All Blacks might have made the 2020 Tri Nations title more attainable for the Wallabies, but it’s also made this Saturday’s clash with Los Pumas far more dangerous than what was expected a few weeks ago.
If coach Dave Rennie had been harbouring private thoughts of giving his wider squad some game time in the last two Tests of the year, the result at Bankwest Stadium thoroughly dispelled them.
The Australian backline named to take on Argentina is unchanged from the one which helped the side defeat the All Blacks two weeks ago, a decision admittedly made easier by James O’Connor’s continued absence through injury.
There are three changes to the pack, but with two of them forced – James Slipper and Lachie Swinton out through injury and suspension respectively – it’s a case of Rennie picking the best side he possibly can.
Bringing Taniela Tupou into the starting side is clearly a way to deal with the intense physicality Los Pumas will bring, but there must surely have been some thought given to persevering with the prop in the same manner as in Brisbane. He was excellent off the bench, far more impactful than he had been starting earlier in the Bledisloe Cup, and there would have been little to fault with an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to his role.
Still, Tupou’s introduction to the run-on team will improve the scrum, an area which Rennie said yesterday they’d be looking to target Argentina. But given how well they scrummaged against New Zealand, there’s no guarantee of that paying off – Mario Ledesma’s side look to have rediscovered their set-piece mojo after a few years of having an uncharacteristically vulnerable scrum.
With that in mind, it made sense to bring Scott Sio straight into the starting side rather than promote Angus Bell from the bench to replace Slipper, whose scrummaging and defence is a massive loss. Bell was mightily impressive on debut in Bledisloe 4, but wasn’t the most consistent performer at scrum time in Super Rugby.
Throwing him a first start against a strong pack on the basis of one game – however promising it was – would have been more of a risk than opting for the more seasoned Sio. Plus, if Rennie’s comments about the Brumby’s efforts in training over the past two weeks are anything to go by, tomorrow night should see Sio return to his 2015 form after a year when he’s been below his best.
Watching the Pumas-All Blacks game, one couldn’t help but notice that Argentina match up well with the Wallabies. They were able to disrupt the New Zealand lineout – not just with a couple of vital steals but also by contesting throws – and were immense at the breakdown, two areas which Australia have struggled with at times this season.
While Ned Hanigan’s return to the XV improves the lineout, his challenge will be matching it with the Argies in the contact zone. The Waratah has been good in his return to Test rugby this year, but he’s still not a physically dominant enforcer, the type which Rennie added to the side through Swinton’s selection in Brisbane.
Had he not been suspended, Swinton would have relished the opportunity to go head-to-head with the likes of Pablo Matera and Marcos Kremer, even if there would have been no guarantee of him matching the Argentinian loosies.
There’s similarly no certainty the entire Wallabies outfit will be able to outmuscle their opponents this weekend – far from it. Los Pumas looked like a team who’d been stuck in the gym for the last nine months, and against the side which still has a number of developing players, they will likely be the stronger of the two in close.
Nonetheless, it’s crucial Australia don’t get overpowered. It’s no coincidence their two losses this year came when New Zealand held the upper hand in contact, while the win and draw were both characterised by strong performances in tight.
Two other areas will be critical in deciding tomorrow’s result.
The first is the kicking game from both sides, and the field position that ensues.
The Wallabies played most of Bledisloe 4 in the right areas of the park, but Argentina’s willingness and ability to play without the ball was even more apparent. Nicolas Sanchez and Tomas Cubelli kicked accurately throughout, with some of the latter’s exits particularly brilliant.
Reece Hodge and Nic White, then, will have a critical role to play to ensure their opposites don’t dominate with the boot. White had some iffy moments in the first half in Brisbane but produced some far better box kicks in the second, which will need to be repeated in Newcastle.
A clear indication of the kicking game’s importance is Jake Gordon’s return to the Wallabies bench after Tate McDermott wore the number 21 in the last two games. Rennie said in the lead-up to Bledisloe 1 that Gordon’s kicking is an area he has the edge on McDermott, and yesterday espoused the quality of his “core skills” in comparison to McDermott’s better running game.
Expect ample kicking from nine from Australia, then, and just from both teams in general. It could lead to a fairly dour, tactical game of rugby – not to mention raising the ire of a certain ex-Wallabies coach sitting in the visitors’ box – but you get the sense that whichever side opts to run more than kick will only hinder their chances.
On the back of field position, discipline will be key. Just like Australia did the week before, Argentina beat the All Blacks despite scoring fewer tries, showing a willingness to take the three whenever it was available – and with Sanchez kicking the way he was, “available” tended to mean anywhere in the attacking half.
New Zealand’s discipline was poor in what was admittedly a bit of a whistle-a-thon – their 13 penalties conceded were actually fewer than Argentina’s 16. With the latter enjoying a territorial advantage, that translated to seven shots at goal, 18 points from the tee, and an amount of scoreboard pressure the All Blacks could not overcome.
Needless to say, that’s a handicap the Wallabies cannot afford to volunteer.
One advantage Dave Rennie’s charges do have over their Kiwi counterparts, courtesy of the week off, is they know exactly what to expect from Los Pumas. There’ll be no complacency, nor any surprise to see their opponents playing well beyond what a team with fewer than 500 minutes under their belt should be capable of.
There may be something of a drop-off from Argentina – at the very least they’ll surely make more than a single handling error – but while common sense says a team will struggle to back up from such a physical encounter, particularly when it was their first Test in more than a year, common sense was pretty useless in predicting their last result.
The Wallabies have to assume the Pumas will play with the exact same skill and intensity. That doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t succeed where the All Blacks failed.