Pumas hope to win; All Blacks confident of victory
Updated: October 07, 2011, 02:54
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) The buildup to their last World Cup knockout game couldn't have gone better for the All Blacks.
"It was a perfect week, how well we prepared and trained,'' scrumhalf Andy Ellis recalled. "We did our homework, we covered everything. We ticked every box. Everyone was really prepared.''
Which made the loss all the more galling in the 2007 World Cup. France pulled a performance out of thin air as only the French can, and the All Blacks suffered their earliest exit in the quarterfinals.
They are finally back in the quarterfinals, lined up against Argentina on Sunday in Eden Park.
Just as heavily favored as four years ago.
Just as well prepared.
Just as dangerous.
But a touch more cautious.
New Zealand dealt with paying back France two weeks ago with a powerful 37-17 statement at Eden Park.
This week the All Blacks have been dealing with losing their best player, superstar flyhalf Dan Carter, and pouring their confidence into heir not-so-apparent Colin Slade. Slade hasn't done much wrong in the World Cup but New Zealanders are worried, after eight years of watching an artist in the No. 10 jersey, that a handyman is running the backline.
The New Zealand public's fears have also been fanned by the sight of captain Richie McCaw trying to limp to the finish line, and two more first-choice backs - fullback Israel Dagg and winger Richard Kahui, who share nine tries in the Cup - temporarily sidelined by injuries.
Even after all that, the most experienced All Blacks side ever will still run out on Eden Park, better armed than in 2007. Soft pool games back then didn't prepare them for the quarterfinals, when France brought a weapons to what the All Blacks thought would be a fist fight. This time, the All Blacks have been humbled by Tonga in the second half of their opening match, and conceded two second-half tries to France.
At least New Zealand has been playing better than Argentina, which enjoyed an excellent first half in the narrow loss to England and a full 80-minute rebound against Romania. Further wins over Scotland and Georgia were no better than workmanlike, which is why the Pumas are under pressure to drastically improve their effort or face a heavy defeat.
It has to start up front, their undoubted strength. The Pumas have mastered scrummaging since the late 1960s, when coach Catamarca Ocampo invented the bajadita, the simultaneous eight-man push. Argentina hopes to use its scrum in attack and defense, not just to set up plays but also produce penalties.
"If we can dominate and create penalties it could become a great psychological weapon,'' said reserve prop Marcos Ayerza.
The Pumas are also out to slow down ruck ball, to give their defense time to regroup and hinder the New Zealand attack which thrives on speed.
Argentina's scrambling defense has also impressed, enough for New Zealand coach Graham Henry to remark, "It looks like space and all of a sudden it's closed.''
The Pumas have to marry all of this, Ayerza said, with hunger, desperation, and passion.
Will it be enough?
The All Blacks say they have heeded the lesson from four years ago not to look beyond what's in front of them, and what's in front of them has their full respect.
Argentina's "game suits knockout competition,'' New Zealand backup lock Ali Williams said. "If we take them lightly, then she'll be a quiet old Monday for us.''
It has been two years since any pack outmuscled the All Blacks, and that required some dark deeds by Martin Castrogiovanni in a game Italy still lost.
As much as the Pumas pride themselves on their pack, so does New Zealand. And even if there is a stalemate in the forwards' confrontation, the opposing backs are mismatched. Just as the All Blacks marked McCaw's 100th test in style two weeks ago, they are keen to ensure fullback Mils Muliaina will have his own celebration on Sunday for becoming the second All Black to a century of caps.
For New Zealand, the plans are in place, the homework's done, and the boxes are ticked.
New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Colin Slade, Piri Weepu; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Andrew Hore, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Victor Vito, Jimmy Cowan, Aaron Cruden, Isaia Toeava.
Argentina: Martin Rodriguez, Gonzalo Camacho, Marcelo Bosch, Felipe Contepomi (captain), Horacio Agulla, Santiago Fernandez, Nicolas Vergallo; Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Julio Farias Cabello, Patricio Albacete, Manuel Carizza, Juan Figallo, Mario Ledesma, Rodrigo Roncero. Reserves: Agustin Creevy, Martin Scelzo, Marcos Ayerza, Alejandro Campos, Alfredo Lalanne, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, Juan Imhoff.