The cohesion of the All Blacks’ powerful midfield combination will be key to the outcome of Friday’s Test against Argentina, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
There can be no doubting the widely anticipated result of the clash, with a vastly experienced All Blacks side sure to boast far too much firepower for the Pumas.
However, the effectiveness of the combination between code-hopping Sonny Bill Williams and Hurricanes star Ma’a Nonu could well determine the magnitude of the scoreline.
Nonu enjoyed a standout Vodacom Super Rugby season, which saw him score five tries and help create a number of others as he rediscovered the sort of form that has made him one of the most revered centres in world rugby.
Regular Bok captain Jean de Villiers had no hesitation in singling Nonu out as the best centre he has ever played against, but while the 33-year-old has consistently impressed on the international stage, he has remained an enigma in Super Rugby.
In recent years, Nonu endured indifferent seasons with the Blues and Highlanders, having left the Hurricanes in controversial circumstances in 2011 after falling out with then coach Mark Hammett.
However, after returning to the Wellington side this year, where he played under trusted coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree, Nonu finally began to thrive on the Super Rugby scene again, and played no small part in their progression to the final.
The cohesive combination between Nonu and centre partner Conrad Smith is surely the best in the modern game, but the latter has been afforded more time to recover after a gruelling Super Rugby season, and will not play against Argentina.
As a result, Nonu will wear the relatively unfamiliar No 13 jersey, lining up outside of Williams.
It’s a reversal of roles from the last three times they’ve played together, but Nonu’s straight running could well complement the off-loading strengths of Williams.
Indeed, if the All Blacks’ experienced and powerful pack can lay the foundation for halfback duo TJ Perenara and Dan Carter to get the backline going, Williams and Nonu could do serious damage.
Significantly, the All Blacks will also have try-scoring machine Waisake Naholo ranging on the outside as he gets set to make his debut on the wing.
The All Blacks have never lost to Argentina, and there's little to suggest that record will be broken on Friday, with the match also set to see Carter and Richie McCaw make their final Test appearances in front of their Christchurch home crowd.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: All Blacks 19, Argentina 0, Draw 1
In New Zealand: All Blacks 11, Argentina 0
– New Zealand have scored at least two tries in each of their 20 games against Argentina, averaging 5.3 per game.
– In contrast, Argentina have never scored more than two tries in a game against the All Blacks and have managed just one in the last three Tests between the nations.
– The last seven meetings between the sides have all seen the All Blacks win by 15-plus points.
– Argentina boasted the best ruck success in last year’s competition (95%) while New Zealand had the lowest success rate (92%).
All Blacks – 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Ma'a Nonu, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Charles Piutau, 10 Dan Carter, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Andy Ellis, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Ryan Crotty.
Argentina – 15 Joaquin Tuculet, 14 Horacio Agulla, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Jerónimo De la Fuente, 11 Cordero Santiago, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Tomas Cubelli, 8 Facundo Isa, 7 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Juan Manuel Leguizamon, 5 Guido Petti Pagadizabal, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustin Creevy (c), 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Subs: 16 Julian Montoya, 17 Lucas Noguera, 18 Nahuel Chaparro Tetaz, 19 Benjamin Macome, 20 Javier Ortega Desio, 21 Martin Landajo, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)
Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images