ABs braced for hostile atmosphere in La Plata
LIAM NAPIER IN BUENOS AIRES
Barbed wire fences at the stadium. A hostile atmosphere. A football-mad nation seemingly on the cusp of their first win in the Rugby Championship.
These are all unique challenges the All Blacks face in Argentina this week.
Once they get over the jetlag, after arriving on a 15-hour flight via Chile yesterday, and take in their colourful surroundings today, those All Blacks making their first venture to South America will soon be struck by the passion.
Argentinean flags light up the skylines and take centre stage on buildings in Buenos Aires, the capital that hosts almost 3 million people in the city and more than 15 million in the province. Add to that the sight of crazed football fans and a clear vision quickly forms of what the visitors will encounter this weekend.
"It was amazing. I don't think I've experienced anything like it," veteran All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu said of last year's crowd. "It was like being at a soccer game the way they cheered for their team and how passionate they are. It's awesome to experience."
No surprises, then, the stadium in La Plata features a moat-like boundary and barbed-wire fences. It's hard to imagine such measures in New Zealand, where openly animated rugby supporters sit squarely in the minority.
Five new faces to the side that delivered a classy 54-15 lesson at the same ground last year are expected to start on Sunday (NZ time). But that's not the reason a similar romp is being swiftly downplayed.
"Everyone is more aware of what to expect but there's a lot of new guys in the group and there's an anticipation La Plata will be a very noisy place and the opposition will be very good," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.
"We'll have to match them physically and play our own brand of rugby."
The Pumas have proved a difficult and different beast on home turf. This time, they're also unlikely to employ an expansive style, which played into the All Blacks hands, allowing them to run rampant.
The Springboks were held to a draw in Mendoza last year and scrapped to an unconvincing five-point escape at the same venue this season. But the competition newbies want to be more than "nearly men"; more than a country that adds something different.
"They love playing in front of their people," Mealamu said. "We had a good performance last year but we'll have to park that to the side. They're always such a difficult side to play at home. We're expecting nothing less.
"They've been getting closer and closer. You've seen the improvements they've made over the last couple of games. We want to make sure we're not the ones that get tipped up."
With two matches remaining against the All Blacks and Wallabies, there is a growing sense the Pumas are poised to break their 10-game drought in the tournament, though, after pushing Ewen McKenzie's side to the brink in Perth last week, most will agree their breakthrough win is more likely to come in the final round.
"Hopefully, it's not a week away," Hansen quipped. "They've made a lot of progress since last year and they're getting better all the time. We'll have to be better than we were last year."
Clearly, there's no danger of the All Blacks treating the Pumas as a mere appetiser to the main course finale in Johannesburg next week.
- Fairfax Media
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