Argentina has to deliver against Tonga in must-win RWC game
OSAKA, Japan (AP) — Argentina has done the self-criticism following an agonizing opening defeat, and has to deliver against Tonga in their must-win Rugby World Cup match on Saturday.
Coach Mario Ledesma made a big statement by dropping flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and hooker Agustin Creevy after the tense 23-21 loss to France. Argentina trailed 20-3 at the break, led 21-20, conceded a dropped goal, and missed a last-gasp penalty after switching kickers.
“We are still hurting after France, but it’s in the past. The World Cup isn’t over yet, and there are still three games ahead of us,” center Jeronimo De La Fuente says. “We reminded ourselves that you will always be left behind if you stop believing. We are fully confident that we will show up against Tonga.”
The players had better, because Argentina still has 2003 champion England to come.
Ledesma has handed Benjamin Urdapilleta his first start since June 2013 in place of Sanchez, whose kicking was off last weekend, and chosen Julian Montoya — a try-scorer against the French — instead of Creevy, the former captain.
Tonga also has to win after losing its opener to England 35-3 so Tomas Lezana — selected at No. 8 in one of four Pumas changes — knows what to expect.
“It will be a crunch, without a question,” Lezana says. “Tonga is a very physical team and we should keep to our set-pieces and redouble our efforts on defense as well as in the contact area.”
Tonga coach Toutai Kefu must cope with Argentina’s expected backlash without his most influential player.
Flyhalf Kurt Morath might need throat surgery after trying to tackle England’s imposing Manu Tuilagi, while center Nafi Tuitavake is also sidelined after breaking his arm in that game.
“We are gutted for them, they are two of our better players,” assistant coach Richard Watt says. “Kurt worked so hard to make it after coming out of international retirement and Nafi was only just back from injury.”
The 34-year-old Morath is Tonga’s all-time leading scorer at the World Cup with 73 points, and Tonga’s all-time with 340 test points. He will be especially missed. He was impressive when the sides met at the World Cup four years ago, putting Tonga in the driving seat with an early try before the Tongans wilted in a 45-16 loss.
Morath is replaced by the younger and bigger James Faiva, whose five caps have all come in the last two months.
Tonga’s task is made harder by the fact it has had one day less than Argentina to prepare for the game at Hanazono Rugby Stadium, on the outskirts of highly popular tourist destination Osaka.
“We’ve got to make sure our bodies and minds are fresh,” Watt says. “It is a pretty quick turnaround for us and Argentina pose a similar physical challenge to England.”
The Pumas are on the back foot in a tough-looking Pool C, but Watt expects them to be ready to handle the big-match pressure, simply because many of them are used to playing successfully for the Jaguares in Super Rugby and made the final this year for the first time.
Defeat to Tonga on Saturday would almost certainly end Argentina’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages, and make it 11 defeats in a row.
Watt is not reading too much into that run of losses, however.
“They have lost some games in the Rugby Championship, they were pretty close losses,” he said. “They could have beaten the All Blacks.”
Tonga’s match against England wasn’t close, but there were some signs of improvement in the wake of a humiliating 92-7 reverse to New Zealand in a pre-tournament warmup.
“It was a better performance,” flanker Sione Kalamafoni says. “But we didn’t come here to be satisfied with just a better performance. We are here to complete the task of competing on a world stage.”
Kalamafoni wants more audacity from Tonga’s attack.
“When we got into the England 22 we didn’t throw a punch,” he says. “We’re hoping to fix those little mistakes.”