29 Sep 2018

All Blacks' legacy under threat if they lose in Argentina

9:06 pm on 29 September 2018

Opinion - The All Blacks have entered their 'away' phase of the year: Argentina this week, South Africa the next.

Beauden Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown at the final whistle after losing to South Africa 2018.

Beauden Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown at the final whistle after losing to South Africa 2018. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Looking at the schedule back at the start of the season, this fortnight wasn't really flagged as a big one - now it's turned into maybe the most important couple of weeks of 2018.

No matter how anyone spun it, this year was always going to be about next year. Because if the All Blacks can lift the World Cup in Tokyo next November, the results don't really matter, right?

Well, that was the prevailing thought before the All Blacks' shock loss to the Springboks in Wellington. The All Blacks' proud record probably can't sustain another loss without some sort of serious questions being asked, but in terms of build up for the World Cup, it's probably just the sort of scenario that's going to be the most useful.

One thing you can't replicate easily is pressure, and while the level will be heightened against Los Pumas on Sunday morning, it'll be thoroughly bursting next weekend in Pretoria.

How the All Blacks handle such pressure in a World Cup is a constant worry between tournaments, because they're barely troubled at all by anyone else in that time period.

It's an odd thing for New Zealanders to be worried about, because you can't fault the way they handled it during the last two tournaments. The knife-edge final in 2011 was a textbook case in grinding out a win, while the only time they were pushed in 2015 was a tense victory over the Springboks in the semi-final.

But still, rugby fans aren't exactly renowned for their rationality, so here's a chance to credibly mimic the sort of environment the All Blacks will find themselves in at the World Cup. Namely, games you would expect them to win but in a high stakes setting.

Let's get one thing straight: Argentina are good and pose a credible threat to the All Blacks on Sunday morning. This time last year they definitely weren't, having blundered their way through Super Rugby as their alter-ego the Jaguares, then losing all of their Rugby Championship games.

In the corresponding fixture last year, the 36-10 result was the epitome of an All Black side showing up to work, doing exactly what they needed to and then closing the game down while avoiding any unnecessary injuries.

This year has been vastly different for Los Pumas, although their last game summed up everything frustrating about playing the All Blacks. They played exceptionally well and were still well beaten by an All Black side without its top talent.

Still though, they would have got enough out of it to head into this return leg in Buenos Aires with a great deal of confidence.

Steve Hansen has shown he very much knows this too, naming an experienced side that only features one potential debutant in Angus Ta'avao. TJ Perenara, who is playing his 50th test and was commanding in his last start in Nelson, has Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams outside him to help get the ball wide often.

There's only one big hole in the lineup and that's Kieran Read. He was outstanding in this game last year, and Luke Whitelock still has some work to do to be even mentioned in the same conversation as the All Blacks' captain.

One loss to the Springboks isn't enough to ring alarm. If anything, it was welcomed by an All Blacks' fan base happy to see the team put to the test. But there is definitely a limit to the patience of the rugby public - and it never exceeds one loss.

If Los Pumas can pull of an historic day in Buenos Aires this weekend - and there are a few compelling reasons why they could - all of a sudden the perception of this All Blacks side will change dramatically.

But they should be welcoming the pressure to avoid that because that sort of experience wins World Cups.

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