All Blacks must bag Pumas before Boks hunt
Like Dean Barker with an 8-1 lead, the All Blacks this week come to a dangerous sporting crossroads.
The only team that can beat the All Blacks in Argentina on Sunday are the All Blacks themselves; have no doubts about that.
If they take their eye off the ball, and start thinking about that massive meeting on the mountaintop in Jo'burg the following week, they could be vulnerable. And it has to be a massive temptation. Even on a subconscious level.
Boks-Blacks II is shaping as such a destructive, delicious and defining rugby contest, that it is almost impossible not to start savouring it already. Especially in light of the events of Eden Park where the South Africans felt they were denied a level playing field by some over-zealous refereeing.
But if the All Blacks stay in the now, to use the modern sporting lexicon, and if they stay focused on the immediate challenge, not the next one, and if they afford a proud, physical, but limited Pumas team the respect they deserve, then they will be able to press on to Ellis Park with their undefeated record intact.
That is essentially what it has come to. If the focus is there, victory No 8 on the trot for 2013 should be brought up with a minimum of discomfort. But if the edge is not there and the attitude wavers a little, this could be one of those banana skin games that people talk about.
The All Blacks have never lost to Argentina , and there is no reason for that to change on Sunday - even without Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. The absence of that once talismanic duo now no longer has the destabilising effect it once had.
Aaron Cruden is a more than capable stand-in at first five-eighth and the next cab off the rank, young Beauden Barrett, is also well on the way to achieving similar status.
Carter has now missed so many big games, the All Blacks have long ago figured out how to play without him. At No 7 Sam Cane remains a work in progress but there is no doubt the young man is heading in the right direction. He would have gained a lot from coming through a tough night at "Bleedin' Park" on the right side of the ledger.
Besides, McCaw is no longer the sort of player who cannot be replaced. His leadership is immense, and he is as hard as nails, but he has been surpassed by Kieran Read and, to a lesser extent, Sam Whitelock as the most influential forwards in this team.
All indications are the All Blacks have the blinkers affixed. There is to be no experimentation this week - no sneak peek at Ben Smith at centre or Charles Piutau somewhere in the back three - and no gratuitous resting of hard-working frontliners.
There is another factor that leaves me feeling comfortable. It sounds a little negative but the All Blacks have always been highly motivated by the fear of losing, as much as the thrill of winning.
It is why they have never lost to Argentina, never lost to Ireland, never lost to Scotland, and it has been 60 years since they dropped one to Wales. History matters to the All Blacks. They are incredibly proud of these records and adopt a "not on my watch" attitude when it comes to preserving them.
The Rugby Championship needs the Pumas to start racking up wins.
It is a credibility thing. And a confidence one too. But for a team whose players are forced to grind away through their off-season, for an outfit still searching for its rugby identity, it will be a major achievement to do so against a switched-on All Blacks side.
The Wallabies next week in Rosario? Now that is a different story.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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