How much do Argentina have left in the tank? The answer should be clear in the second half of a ferocious forwards clash between the Pumas and South Africa on Sunday.
The Pumas have shown they have the toughest minds and best defence in the Rugby World Cup, but how long they can preserve both in the atmosphere of their debut World Cup semifinal will determine if they can knock off the Springboks for the first time in the most important match in Argentina’s history.
Cracks appeared among the Pumas last Sunday when they let slip a 19-6 lead around the hour mark to give Scotland a sniff at victory. Argentina was too desperate in the end for a mediocre Scots side, and coach Marcelo Loffreda noted his men lost their focus before their legs went.
The Springboks are too dangerous for anybody to afford easing off at any time. The Pumas, however, are sure they’ll be fine.
”When you think the legs stop running, the heart will keep going. We have really big hearts,” flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe said.
His heart can’t be questioned, nor can that of lock Patricio Albacete, midfielder Felipe Contepomi and fullback Ignacio Corleto. They’ve all started in all five Pumas wins.
”We will have plenty of time to take a rest after the tournament,” said prop Rodrigo Roncero, who will start his fourth straight game.
The Pumas have never played six Tests in quick succession, and they will need every spare breath to end South Africa’s run of 11 victories against them since 1993.
”Many of their players have said they don’t fear us because they have never lost to us, but I don’t care,” Argentina captain Agustin Pichot said. ”We know our limitations and we know our strengths and hopefully we can impose our strengths on Sunday.”
Argentina’s strengths are impressive. Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo are the sharp end of a scrummaging unit that will give South Africa far more trouble than Fiji did last weekend in Marseille.
They also love to drive, supported by a loose trio that embarrassed France at tackle ball in the 17-12 upset on opening night.
Pichot’s scrumhalf tussle with Fourie du Preez will be another highlight. Pichot is the inspiring captain, playing on his club’s home ground, in his fourth and last World Cup. He was described as ”irritating” this week, in a respectful way, by Du Preez, whose own hustle and breaks have torn apart defences and underlined his tag as the world’s best number nine.
Pumas flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez and centre Felipe Contepomi have expertly spearheaded their tactical kicking game, looking to play for territory and pick up a penalty or drop goal. It hasn’t been glamorous but, again, the Pumas have just kicked on.
”If people want to be entertained, they should go to the cinema or the theatre. We are here to win,” Manuel Contepomi said. ”Our style is not the prettiest, but it is the most effective. And we’re going to keep using it.”
That’s OK with the Springboks, who have planned for a bombardment with the utmost respect for the Pumas. Not offering the same to Fiji almost cost them last weekend. The Boks blew a 20-6 lead, Fiji rallied to 20-20, then South Africa’s forwards took charge again to end Fiji’s serious threat.
Captain John Smit admits the South Africans haven’t played their best since crushing England 36-0, needing late charges to put down Tonga and Fiji and show the depth of their character.
”It’s been good to know how you have to play to win these games,” Smit said. ”History plays no role, but how you play in the tight matches.”
He said the Springboks and Pumas have been playing smart, direct knock-out rugby, leaving out the frills to get the job done.
Argentina pose a massive hurdle to South Africa’s bid for a second World Cup, and the pressure is mainly on the Springboks as the new favourites.
”We know they’ve got a powerful forward pack. They’ve got a huge return out of kicking a lot of ball and other teams not doing what they should do with it — by not fielding it properly, by making the wrong decisions around the ball, by not working back hard enough,” Smit said.
”Those are the things we’ll try and bring into our game on Sunday. The other thing is to get our structures going once we’ve got the ball and hold on to it for as long as possible. This is the hardest part of the World Cup, because if we don’t win we don’t exist in seven days’ time.” — Sapa-AP
South Africa: Percy Montgomery, JP Pietersen, Jacque Fourie, Francois Steyn, Bryan Habana, Butch James, Fourie du Preez; Os du Randt, John Smit (captain), CJ van der Linde, Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw.
Replacements: Bismarck du Plessis, Jannie du Plessis, Johann Muller, Bob Skinstad, Ruan Pienaar, Andre Pretorius, Wynand Olivier.
Argentina: Ignacio Corleto, Lucas Borges, Manuel Contepomi, Felipe Contepomi, Horacio Agulla, Juan Martin Hernandez, Agustin Pichot (captain); Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma, Martin Scelzo, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, Patricio Albacete, Lucas Ostiglia, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Gonzalo Longo.
Replacements: Alberto Vernet Basualdo, Omar Hasan, Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Nicolas Fernandez Miranda, Federico Todeschini, Gonzalo Tiesi.
Referee: Steve Walsh, New Zealand.