Argentina’s spectacular entry into the tournament this year, with that famous victory over the All Blacks has sadly been overshadowed by the yawning pitfalls of social media traps as well as having that said high point being put into context by a 38-0 thrashing at the hands of New Zealand two weeks later. This is a wounded and battered Pumas side that takes to the field in Western Sydney on Saturday, who have experienced more highs and lows in the space of four weeks than most sides during an entire World Cup. The motivation to restore pride and respect back into the Pumas jersey has probably never been higher, but given that this will be the fourth straight Test against Tier one opposition in as many weeks, you have to wonder how much gas is still left in the Argentinian tank.
As for Australia, the Tri-Nations has also been a time of highs and lows. There was that humiliation of a 43-5 loss to the All Blacks on home soil, followed up a week later with a tight victory over their arch rivals. A fortnight later they struggled to impose themselves on Argentina, who got the better of them in the second half, and as a result they were lucky to get away with the draw. What Australia needs more than anything is consistency and a clear understanding of the kind of game they want to play and how to get there. As a result Saturday’s match is a classic case of Australia desperately trying to connect the dots and set themselves up for 2021. In short they need a win and they have to make it convincing.
A time for actions to speak louder than words
We’ll get this one out of the way first. Yes it sadly has overshadowed much of the events relating to the oval ball this week, albeit for the right reasons. However, although the comments made by the three when teenagers on Twitter were inexcusable, we do feel they have to be put into context. Let’s all be honest, many of us have probably said things we wished we hadn’t and on reflection realized that it was grossly inappropriate and offensive, especially when we were immature and brash teenagers who invariably thought the world revolved around us. In this day and age when teenagers have so much access to social media without really understanding the social responsibility that should come with it – things will get said that never should but suddenly become part of the public domain. In Matera’s defense, he has taken full responsibility for his words as well as shouldering the shame that comes with them. It is now up to all three of them, but Matera in particular as Captain, to show that they are changed men who in the scope of their careers as professional sportsmen have learnt to respect the hundreds of equally talented fellow athletes from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds who are now part of their larger rugby family. We probably all know people who we thought were complete jerks when they were teenagers but who, in the process of growing up into responsible adults, have changed for the better. Provided all three take responsibility for the errors of their youth and let their actions on and off the pitch speak for themselves, then we’d argue give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
Get the basics right and Australia are a good team
But that’s the problem they aren’t right. Australia’s lineouts are beyond poor for a Tier 1 test team, their scrums have shown some improvement but not enough, their handling errors are the stuff of every Coaches worst nightmares and their decision making is about as consistent as a Newfoundland weather forecast. As we saw on numerous occasions there is a raft of talent in this Australian team, that if managed properly on the field could be world beating. In the two weeks since they last played it will be fascinating to see whether or not they have managed to get their rugby fundamentals right. Argentina have many of the same problems but as they showed against New Zealand in that famous victory, on their day they, unlike Australia, can put in an eighty minute performance that hits all the basics time and time again.
If they have a game plan – they’ve got game changers!
Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami have shown they are a very nuggety center pairing with the former also having a blistering turn of speed and an eye for space. In their last outing against Argentina, winger Tom Wright looked an exceptionally exciting prospect for Australia if they could just figure out how to use him. Marika Koroibete is no longer a liability on defense and if he can just get given balls he can actually catch then the winger has the potential to rip defenses to shreds – the problem being that he just hasn’t been getting enough quality ball. The return of James O’Connor at fly half should help this process and as long as his scrum half partner Nic White can focus more on the game and less on a career as an assistant referee, the Wallabies should be well set up to make some inroads against what, with the exception of last weekend, has proven to be a relatively impenetrable and well organized Pumas defense.
The Fatigue Factor vs Pride and Passion
There’s no denying that after not playing Test rugby for a year and not much in the way of club rugby either, the Pumas four back to back matches against two of the best sides in the world must be taking its toll. Add to that the off field media circus that’s been thrown into the mix this week, and Argentina are going to have to dig deep to summon up the energy for one last hoorah. Pride and respect are at stake and the right to continue to be counted amongst the world’s best. While few would argue that right is in jeopardy, Argentina know that they still need to put on one last big show to close out 2020 in style. They have their critics at home to face on their return and a drubbing at the hands of Australia will not strengthen their arguments. The pace at which the Rugby Championship (or Tri-Nations as it is this year) is played is energy sapping at the best of times when it’s usually played in the Southern Hemisphere winter. With temperatures predicted to be 26 degrees and humid with thunderstorms on Saturday in Sydney, conditions will put the teams under even greater duress from a fatigue perspective. The Wallabies will have had two weeks to recover from their last date with the Pumas, and none of the media attention that has unfortunately been focused on their Argentinian opponents. Well rested and on home ground with a crowd (unlike their compatriots North of the Equator) the Wallabies have clearly been dealt the better hand. For the Pumas, it’s the end of a long journey a long way from home that had it’s dizzying highs and soul destroying lows.
Write them off though at your peril. There is still a very good and exceptionally dangerous team here if they can keep it together for 80 minutes. Furthermore as we’ve already seen this year, belief in themselves and pride in and passion for the jersey can achieve super human feats. It’s something they perhaps harness better than any other Test rugby side on the planet, and if it fires for them on Saturday fatigue will just have to take a back seat for this one! It also may be too little too late but they may well want to pay some respect to this guy!
Controversy aside, two great teams take to the pitch on Saturday for one last time in Sydney as Test rugby makes its curtain call in the Southern Hemisphere after a troubled year. Both teams have everything to prove to both themselves, their supporters and the world at large. On paper it’s all the ingredients for a classic. Let’s hope it is and that Southern Hemisphere Test rugby closes with a bang rather than a whimper for 2020. Impossible to call as for both sides it really depends on which teams turn up on the day mentally. If both bring their A game, then Argentina to sneak it and regain some respect.