Boks to inflict fresh drubbing?

Bryan Habana (Gallo Images)
Bryan Habana (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Hardly helped by a record 73-13 humiliation in their 2013 opener, there are certain worrying signs that Argentina may regress rather than progress in their second season of Castle Rugby Championship activity.

Either to retirement or untimely current injury, they have lost several players who customarily provide their backbone - their whole 'reason to exist', if you like.

At least for the foreseeable future, there seems every likelihood that the Pumas will continually bring up the rear in the premier southern hemisphere competition, where the harsh reality is that they are still ranked a long way behind any of traditional world front-runners New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

Down on senior soldiers and stripped of any element of 'surprise' they could boast to some degree in their baptism last year, Argentina may well prove more vulnerable to regular heavy losses this time and battle to emulate even their 2012 showing when they picked up four log points and narrowly avoided being beaten in all six fixtures.

Two of those points, of course, came in the highly praiseworthy Mendoza draw with the Springboks, who were dead lucky to share the spoils that day, thanks to Frans Steyn’s bit of try-scoring opportunism late on to level matters at 16-16 and ensure that South Africa keep their unbeaten record against these opponents.

The 2012 final table had a strange look to it, with the All Blacks the runaway winners with 26 points and a 100 percent win record, the Wallabies and Boks occupying the two middle slots on 12 each, and then the Pumas emphatically earning the wooden spoon.

One happy development in favour of the Argentineans, however, was that the log last year gave them a deceptively inept appearance on paper: in actual fact, they were admirably competitive most of the time, and on all but one occasion prevented the 'big three' from banking bonus-point triumphs against them.

Their lone lapse in that regard ironically came in a home encounter, the 54-15 loss to New Zealand in La Plata, when the All Blacks found that irresistible swagger they are famous for and ran in seven tries to two.

Yet the glue that traditionally and crucially binds the Pumas together - a small yet discernible core of gnarly, world-wise seniors - looks  alarmingly diluted at present, and may go a long way to explaining why they may be contemplating this immediate home rematch (Saturday, 21:10) with last week’s Bok tormentors with some sense of dread rather than more characteristic, gung-ho optimism.

What we probably saw on the Nelson Mandela Sport and Culture Day was confirmation, alas, that when a country like Argentina is deprived of some of its best players, proven replacement talent is in relatively lean supply.

Their problems were only compounded there by the 13th-minute departure, through a torn leg muscle, of 122kg veteran lock Patricio Albacete - he also misses the Mendoza follow-up against the Boks.

Springboks who have played against Argentina will tell you, in some cases a tad ruefully, that a sturdy and uncompromising, angry pack is a key pillar of their game-plan.

It was undoubtedly a reason the Boks largely played second fiddle in the west Argentinean wine-making metropolis last year, but if you look at the likely Pumas forward line-up for the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas a year on, there will probably be at least four crucial and potentially very detrimental differences.

For starters, Argentina are still awkwardly coming to terms with the retirement in late 2012 of loosehead prop ironman Rodrigo Roncero, for so long an essential ingredient in their quest to retain the legend of their scrummaging 'bajada' formula.

One of those reasonably likeable Pumas rogues entrusted with getting under opposition skins, whatever it may take, the greying Roncero was at his snarling, snorting best for an hour in last year’s Mendoza stalemate, before being replaced by the fresh legs of Leicester Tigers’ Marcos Ayerza (as wretched luck would have it for Argentina, the new first-choice at No 1 is also crocked at present).

What the emergency situation meant on the Highveld was that the Pumas felt compelled to switch regular tighthead Juan Figallo to the other side of the scrum, not his preferred stationing, and the blooding at No 3 of raw, 20-year-old Matias Diaz: on the evidence of last Saturday, the Boks’ increasingly senior front-ranker Tendai Mtawarira could not believe his luck and cashed in fairly gleefully at the set-piece.

As if the non-presence of giant second-rower Albacete isn’t bad enough, there seemed a strong likelihood on Tuesday, ahead of either match-day squad announcement, that Argentina would still be without another standout from the fright they gave the Boks in Mendoza last year - captain and No 8 dynamo Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.

A nine-year veteran of the Pumas’ mix, the 2013 Heineken Cup winner with Toulon sat out the Soweto mauling, and was described as touch-and-go at best for this weekend.

By contrast to Argentina’s array of disruption woes, both South Africa’s starting team and bench resources in Mendoza this time are likely to have a steelier look than for last year’s clash.

On that occasion, Francois Hougaard was a first-choice scrumhalf wrestling with a personal confidence crisis, Zane Kirchner offered only solidity and no flair for the unexpected at fullback, Andries Bekker had a forgettable outing at lock and Jacques Potgieter was a very debatable choice as a starting loose forward.

You just feel the Boks probably have Argentina’s number at present, irrespective of where they may do battle.

And perhaps the old playground principle comes into play with the iffy Pumas right now: if you have already managed to bully the school bully, then what really is left of him?

Unless Argentina, collectively chastened by events at FNB Stadium, come out clawing demonically like some cornered animal, I tip South Africa to win with daylight to spare for a second time in a week, even if it probably won’t be by nearly as many as 60 points on this occasion ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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