All Blacks to be tested by Pumas in Rugby Championship
The All Blacks may face a greater test of their post-World Cup development when they play Argentina in the Rugby Championship on Saturday than they have in five tests since they became world champions last November.
New Zealand was hardly stretched in three June tests against Wales - coached by new British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland - and in its first two tests of the Rugby Championship against a mediocre Australia. That suggested their progress since the Rugby World Cup, followed by the retirements of players with a cumulative total of more than 800 test caps, may be more accelerated than expected.
The loss of captain Richie McCaw, who retired as the world's most-capped player with 148 test appearances, has been offset by the growth into the captaincy of Kieran Read and the rise of new leaders. Sam Cane has also steadily developed as the heir to McCaw's No. 7 jersey.
The retirement of flyhalf Dan Carter, the world's leading test pointscorer with 1,598, has been overcome by the rise of Beauden Barrett, who may be considered the best player in the world at the moment.
The departures of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the world's most experienced test midfield, have been more problematic, and the transition to a new, permanent combination has been set back by injuries.
But Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa, who will again combine in midfield in Hamilton on Saturday, have overcome disruptions to begin building a solid partnership.
Crotty missed New Zealand's most recent test against Australia with a head injury, and returns on Saturday in the only change to the lineup.
In other positions affected by retirements - at prop and at hooker - the All Blacks seem to have quickly plugged holes. Fears about a deficit in leadership and experience have proved unfounded.
The All Blacks have progressed beyond the expectations of coach Steve Hansen.
''We have definitely improved in our leadership. This young group have really taken the bull by the horns in this area,'' he said. ''It's a collective unit operating very, very well with a lot of flexible thinking, and loving the challenge.
''We talked a lot earlier in the year that when you cut down the big trees, the little trees tend to get the sunlight and grow. That's what's happened. The guys have been prepared to step up. Our great players cast a big shadow. Once they go, then everyone else says, `Well, it's my turn.'''
Argentina hasn't beaten New Zealand in 22 matches since their first official test in 1985. But there are signs they may pose a sterner test than at any time in the recent past. They are coming off a 26-24 win over South Africa - their second win over the Springboks in the past two seasons - and it was a win which showed the scope of their game and their resilience. They had to reclaim a lead lost late in the match, after letting a similar lead slip when they met the Springboks in South Africa a week earlier.
Argentina has often been exposed in the past by the All Blacks' pace, and New Zealand will inevitably try to stretch them again on Saturday with a fast-paced game. But the Pumas' forward pack will be strongly competitive and their defense is well organized. The All Blacks may find them a tougher nut to crack than the Wallabies.
The Pumas' confidence will have been lifted by the win over South Africa and their exposure to top rugby through the Rugby Championship has vastly improved their game.
Flanker Pablo Matera said Argentina dares to believe a win over New Zealand is possible.
''If it wasn't possible, we wouldn't be here,'' Matera said. ''They're the best team in the world and always play at a high level so it's going to be really tough, really intense, and quick.''
Matera said Argentina was keen to prove it was no longer a side shackled to a slower game, based on forward strength.
''We were always a really defensive team and now we're trying to be more offensive,'' he said. ''Now we're a team that tries to play with more speed, and play from all parts of the field.''