Semi-finalists in 2007 and quarter-finalists in 2011, can Argentina take the next step and reach the final?
Like Australia, Argentina have a few injury concerns to key players as well. There hasn’t been a lot of detail in either case but the inspirational duo of captain Agustin Creevy and Fernandez-Lobbe are both rumoured to be under an injury cloud. There aren’t too many details and but I would be surprised if they’re not both belting out the Himno Nacional Argentino come 4pm on Sunday.
Argentina will most likely field an unchanged lineup with the exception of Moroni dropping to the bench and the returning Marcelo Bosch coming back in at 13. Bosch’s ability to kick long range penalties will give an extra weapon to Argentina that they’ll use to make their scrum even more dangerous. It’ll also put pressure on Australia’s breakdown discipline and might make them hesitate if they know that a misstep would cost them 3 points.
One of the interesting subplots to this game is how Argentina will line up differently to their recent Rugby Championship defeat at home to the Wallabies, where they looked toothless in attack and fragile in defence. David Pocock was outstanding that day but his impact was amplified by the Pumas resting their wrecking ball, flanker Pablo Matera. Dominant in the tackle and strong over the ball, Argentina tend to carry hard up the middle of the pitch to keep the space outside uncongested for their outside backs and the occasional rampage from their backrow and the offload-happy Creevy. They’ll be tempted to use Matera, who is also a destructive ball carrier, to bend the defensive line but if they can keep him out of the bottom of rucks that Pocock is close to, Matera’s quick clean outs will help secure the ball before Pocock can get his mitts onto it.
The other player who was rested that day was Juan Martine Hernandez. Hernandez will arguably be the most talented playmaker on show and was badly missed as the Pumas struggled to get the ball wide as quickly and accurately as they wanted. It’s no secret that Nicola Sanchez can struggle when he doesn’t have the calming presence of Hernandez outside him. Hernandez has seen it all through his career and is the rare breed of playmaker that whose play doesn’t deteriorate under the pressure of a blitz defence like Australia’s. Last time out, Sanchez’s kicks were loose, his wide passing was shaky and he neither ran nor tackled with confidence with the result of him being dropped the following week and missing one of Argentina’s most impressive performances ever – a four try dismantling of South Africa in Durban. Hernandez proved that day that he can still tear a team apart at Test level from fly half with his instinctive feints and short passing game giving the South Africans more than they could handle in the middle of the pitch. As good as he was that day though, Hernandez is at his best when he has Sanchez inside him too, giving the Pumas a dual playmaking threat that will see them move the ball from touchline to touchline and disorganise the Australian defence.
The Australians will be wary of the threat that Hernandez’s incredible range of passing provides and they’ll expect Sanchez to shuffle the ball on to him with the expectation of Hernandez throwing a longer, flat pass further out into the wide channel. With how eager the Wallabies have been to prove their mettle in defence combined with the knowledge that Hernandez will make them pay if they hesitate, they’re likely to rush out and try to make a dominant tackle before the ball goes wide and this will open up a few different opportunities for the Pumas. Sanchez could dummy the pass and attack the gap left by the defence being too eager to drift (although this might bring the next ruck closer to Pocock) which will give him the chance to really open up the defence by playing a quick inside pass. If Sanchez opts to pass, Hernandez will be able to stick to their base play with the longer pass but expect him to bring variations like a dummy and flick pass to a charging Bosch. You’ll have noticed that I didn’t really mention kicking as an option for Sanchez and that’s because it isn’t. With his tendency to kick the ball straight to Folau (Beale can a dangerous runner too), the only kicks Sanchez should make are for touch or for the posts. With Folau’s ariel prowess, Argentina would be wise to leave the up and under in the changing rooms unless Folau shows that his ankle injury is still bothering him. Hernandez is a better kicking option than Sanchez if the Pumas want to keep the ball in play and he’s fully capable of trapping Folau in a position that forces him to kick back, which is his glaring weakness as a fullback.
One trend that Argentina will have to reverse if they want to beat Australia is their propensity to give up tries to the Wallabies. The Pumas playing style in defence is unique among tier one nations in that they’re constantly scrambling. It’s a very simple structure because it doesn’t really have a structure – it’s the simple kind of strategy you’d play if you were in a team of 15 guys who’d only met for the first time two hours before kick-off. Big men in the middle, faster players out wide with a couple assigned to sweep up behind. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the complex modern attacks with their set plays would easily tear a defence like this apart but the trouble attacks have is that the defensive alignments they expect to see rarely materialise. They scramble, make the tackle and go again. Argentina have had a few problems against Australia with this kind of defence. At times there has been poor execution with players falling off tackles or being slow to come out to a player running back a kick, allowing the Wallabies to gain territory back easily. At other times, it exposes their forwards to mismatches when the more instinctive Australian players like Beale and Folau have the ball.
It’s important for the Pumas not to get carried away with all the (rightful) praise of their attacking game because a more open game will suit the Wallabies much more than it suited Ireland.
Look for them to hold Pocock at the ruck – reprise Fardy’s tactics on McCaw. Matera and Lobbe in the tackle.
Ramiro Herrera: With the world’s premier loosehead, Marcos Ayerza, anchoring the other side of the scrum, Herrera will have an opportunity to redeem himself for the mistake that let Ireland back into the quarter final by putting pressure on the Australian scrum. The last time he faced the Wallabies, Herrera destroyed James Slipper time and time again before Slipper left with a concussion at the end of the first half. With Scott Sio looking a major doubt to play, Slipper is almost certain to start and Herrera’s prowess will be at the forefront of his mind. The Wallabies will have Toby Smith as their replacement loosehead (his only caps have come against Uruguay and USA) and if Herrera can force similar mistakes from Slipper this time round, it won’t be long before Smith faces a baptism of fire (with Australia possibly down a man for 10 minutes as well). If this happens, expect Ayerza to pile the pressure on Kepu too and then all bets are off.
The Juan Martines: I’m cheating here slightly because I just can’t decide which one is more important. I’ve already gone into detail on why Hernandez is so important but Lobbe has been a colossal presence in attack and defence. He’s been strong over the ball but the really impressive feature of his game has been how he has directed the rest of the forward pack. In attack, he has been rampaging out wide, flicking offloads to wingers, and throwing long flat passes in the middle too but his main role will be neutralising the best player on show.
Referee Watch: Barnes will need to look out for a few niggly things at the breakdown – Fardy has shown a knack for finding his hands grabbing onto players in a ruck once the ball has been cleared, including an incident in a recent Bledisloe Cup match where he held McCaw at a breakdown while Pocock stole the ball at the next ruck.
Hopefully we’ll see an improved performance from Barnes who secretly had a bit of a shocker down the stretch in the quarter final. The penalty that started South Africa’s attack that ended in Fourie du Preez’s try should actually have been awarded to Wales and Barnes missed a number of infringements at the scrum itself (in order: Jannie du Plessis angling in, Alberts binding on Warburton and simultaneously obstructing Lloyd Williams, Warburton binding to his prop – which may have been caused by Alberts binding on to him, and finally Vermuelen kicking the ball back into the scrum before it began to wheel). It was all a bit of a mess but thankfully he didn’t get hounded like Joubert.
Prediction: This is a really close call. Without Pocock, there have been signs of the “Qantas Wallabies” resurfacing and the Australians have been bombing a certain try seemingly every game (Folau butchered an overlap early on against England and the flaky Foley decided to offload resulting in a knock on when he would have scored by holding on against Scotland!). Foley’s goal kicking has also been wavering, and he had a few shockers in the Rugby Championship including the last game against Argentina but I can see the Wallabies scoring tries against an Argentina defence they’ve had a lot of success against in the past.
As with all knockout games, scoreboard pressure is a big influence and while the Wallabies might be able to chase down a big Pumas lead, I don’t think the same applies the other way round. Overall, I’m going to sit on the fence: If Pocock and, to a lesser extent, Folau are available I think Australia will survive Slipper slipping in the scrum to book a place in the final. If Pocock isn’t available, I don’t think Australia have the fetcher they need to restrict Argentina’s attacking possession, and the Pumas will be on to wreak havoc on Halloween.