All Blacks braced for fierce Pumas pack
The All Blacks pack have brought their 'a' game to Argentina, and in Keven Mealamu's estimation it will not be sufficient to quell a Los Pumas pack notorious for upping the ante before a fervent soccer-style home crowd.
Mealamu is braced for a typically fierce forward battle at La Plata on Sunday (NZT) and although New Zealand arrived in Buenos Aires on a 14-test winning streak, there are concerns about the quality of their performances in the inaugural Rugby Championship.
Protect their unbeaten record against their hosts and the All Blacks return home via Johannesburg with another trophy to display at NZRU headquarters, yet despite successfully quelling Los Pumas' resistance in last year's World Cup quarterfinal, and again in Wellington on September 8 the 97-test hooker knows they will be a tougher proposition on home soil.
Mealamu was among the established squad members given the night off when the All Blacks last played at Buenos Aires en route from Europe in 2006 - a 25-19 victory that closed with Los Pumas pressing for a historic converted try at Velez Sarsfield Stadium.
"I can remember the game quite vividly, hearing the chanting of the crowd was amazing," Mealamu recalled.
"In Argentina it's like they grow another leg, they're so much more confident at home and their passion goes to another level when they're playing on front of their own people. I remember seeing that intensity for pretty much the whole game."
The pressure ramped up for the current touring squad today when they trained for the first time - a schedule that must address a lack of fluidity in their attack and an inability to consistently dominate the forward exchanges.
Scrummaging, lineout and clean outs and protecting halfbacks Piri Weepu and Aaron Smith are Mealamu's domain and he didn't mince words when appraising the eight's work in their last two outings.
"To be blunt we've been adequate," he admitted, indicating there could be some willing sessions set down for the forwards this week.
"We've been able to provide a bit a ball but we haven't been where we want to be. As an All Black forward we want to come off the field feeling like we've done well and we've been able to get on top of opposition.
"It feels, maybe, in the last couple of weeks we haven't been able to do that."
Setting a solid platform for Weepu and Smith was a priority given the duo were hassled in Wellington and Dunedin.
"If they're having a great game it means we're doing our job well and if they're there or thereabouts it means we need to really step it up. We want them to be able to be in the game, and for them to be able to do that we need clean, fast front foot ball."
The longest serving forward behind skipper Richie McCaw, Mealamu said in mitigation the current forward pack was adjusting to life without the Brad Thorn's ballast and the defensive intensity offered by Jerome Kaino.
"They (Thorn and Kaino) left a big hole, they're guys with a lot of experience in the jersey and their presence on the field has been huge so it's a new pack finding its way at the moment."
And on game day it will also find itself in a cauldron-like cacophony foreign to their upbringing in New Zealand and unheard of in venues across Australia, South Africa and Europe.
The noise was occasionally deafening in Soweto when the All Blacks played at the 2010 soccer World Cup headquarters two years ago, through the 55,000 fans expected to cram Estadio Ciudad de La Plata will take the decibel level to new heights.
"We're going to have to try and deal with that, we're not used with that sort of noise in the stadiums back home," Mealamu said.
Giving them nothing to shout about would be a sound tactic then.