The All Blacks have rung the changes ahead of their Championship clash against Argentina in Wellington this weekend, with Coach Steve Hansen and his colleagues showing a willingness to provide young players with the opportunity to gain experience at the top level.
That willingness has seen Brodie Retallick earning a start in the second-row, alongside Luke Romano, the pair making the most in-experienced second-row the All Blacks have fielded in years, while Julian Savea gets the nod on the wing in front of his home crowd. Hosea Gear is the unlucky player in that move, missing the 22 altogether, while versatile outside back Ben Smith is overlooked for the start, his ability to cover all three back positions suggesting he could be a permanent fixture on the bench.
Test veterans Tony Woodcock (prop) and Conrad Smith (centre) return, with Smith making his first appearance in the Championship following eye surgery at the end of the Hurricanes’ Super XV campaign. The other major talking point is the inclusion of Victor Vito on the blindside, replacing Liam Messam. Messam returns to the bench despite having been on career-best form in the last couple of months.
The Argentinians have been boosted by the return of two experienced campaigners to the blue and white jersey, fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez and openside flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon, the two returning players the only changes to the starting side which came desperately close to a break-through win over the Springboks a fortnight ago.
Much has been made of the time World Cup winning coach Graham Henry has spent with Los Pumas since their arrival in New Zealand, but it’s hard to imagine he has imparted any really critical information, and it’s equally hard to envisage that anything he has told them could possibly enable them to beat the All Blacks this weekend.
That’s not to say that they won’t provide a stern challenge; New Zealand have regularly struggled with the South Americans, and the first 60 minutes will be a tightly fought, physical encounter. But the visitors don’t have enough points in them to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand. While Argentina will aim to gain field position through their solid set-piece, then earn penalty shots or knock over dropped-goals, the All Blacks will invariably score their points in bunches of 5 and 7.
I think the World Champions will overwhelm the Pumas in the final quarter and run away with a victory that won’t tell the full story of an encounter that will inevitably be bruising and confrontational. My Pick? All Blacks, 47-13.