All Blacks bid to clinch Rugby Championship
All Blacks bid to clinch Rugby Championship
Sep. 26, 2014
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The New Zealand All Blacks will attempt to overcome injuries and off-field distractions to close out their third straight Rugby Championship title when they play Argentina on Saturday.
The All Blacks are unbeaten this season with a draw against Australia and wins over the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas in New Zealand and are six points ahead of Australia and South Africa heading into the fifth of six rounds in the tournament.
A bonus-point win at La Plata would give the All Blacks an unbeatable buffer heading into their last match in South Africa.
But New Zealand has been forced to make five changes to its starting line. Two changes are caused by players returning from injury but the most important change, at flyhalf, has been forced by a disciplinary issue.
Beauden Barrett will start a test in No. 10 jersey for only the second time in place of Aaron Cruden, who missed New Zealand's flight to Argentina after a late-night drinking session and has been suspended for two matches.
That change would be costly in isolation but Barrett will also have to combine with a novice at inside center. Malakai Fekitoa will play only his fifth test and his first at No. 12 because the All Blacks' midfield stocks have been strained by injuries to Ma'a Nonu and Ryan Crotty.
Those changes contribute to New Zealand's disrupted preparation for this match. They were a day late flying to Argentina because of a flight cancellation and have had to alter their preparation schedule.
Cruden's behavior forced a major and unnecessary selection change and created media interest which added to the team's off-field distractions.
Starting hooker Dane Coles was then forced to quit the team to return to New Zealand for the birth of his first child, meaning Keven Mealamu will start in his 118th test.
The return from injuries of lock Sam Whitelock and blindside flanker Jerome Kaino bring the All Blacks up to full strength in the second and backrows, helping to counteract other changes.
Barrett started at flyhalf in only one of the All Blacks seven previous tests and coped well in the role, though his goalkicking was below par.
"Driving the ship, progressing that is a challenge that I'm more than happy to take upon myself and be the boss out there," Barrett said. "It's great to have the opportunity to start again. It's a different role to coming off the bench. The holes might not be there like they are at the back end of the game, so you've got to have patience."
Barrett has the chance to advance his claim for a more permanent starting role and, with veteran Dan Carter due to return from injury, Cruden's indiscretion may prove costly.
New Zealand beat Argentina 28-9 — four tries to nil — when the teams met on a rain-soaked night earlier in the Championship. They have beaten the Pumas 54-15 and 33-15 in matches in Argentina over the last two seasons.
However, the Pumas have shown steady improvement this season and pressed the All Blacks strongly at Napier. Flanker Benjamin Macome said the Pumas should not count on the All Blacks' team changes delivering any advantage to the home team.
"The injuries in the New Zealand squad don't mean much because when one player leaves he is replaced by another play of equal quality," Macome said. "New Zealand will come to prove they are the best in the world. They respect us but will give us nothing.
"I don't think they are impossible to beat, but we ... have to play excellent, and hope they make mistakes for us to dream of a win."
Argentina has made three changes from the 32-25 loss to Australia. Lock Thomas Lavanini returns from suspension in place of Matias Alemanno and Macome takes over from the injured Juan manuel Luguizamon.
Tomas Cubelli will make his first starting appearance in this season's tournament at scrumhalf.
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Juan Imhoff, Marcelo Bosch, Juan Martin Hernandez, Manuel Montero, Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli, Leonardo Senatore, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Benjamin Macome, Tomas Lavanini, Mariano Galarza, Ramior Herrera, Agustin Creevy (captain), Marcos Ayerza.
Reserves: Matias Cortese, Lucas Noguera Paz, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Matias Alemanno, Rodrigo Baez, Martin Landajo, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Horacio Agulla.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: Nathan Harris, Joe Moody, Ben Franks, Jeremy Thrush, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Colin Slade, Cory Jane.