NZ, Argentina test depth with changes in Rugby Championship
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) Chastened by recent poor performances, Argentina and New Zealand have chosen to test the depth of their player talent in the first of two meetings in the Rugby Championship at New Plymouth on Saturday.
Both teams have made seven changes to their lineups for the match as the Pumas respond to back-to-back losses to South Africa and New Zealand to a near defeat to Australia.
New Zealand began this season supremely confident in the depth of its playing resources but that confidence was partly undermined during the drawn series against the British and Irish Lions. Injuries to two key backs, fullback Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty, highlighted some issues.
The All Blacks were constrained by the stern challenge brought by the Lions from experimenting with selections, though they was forced to throw rookies such as winger Reiko Ioane into the fray. The All Blacks also stuck with a first-string lineup for its first two Rugby Championship matches against Australia, winning 54-34 and 35-29 to secure the Bledisloe Cup.
Recognizing the heavy workload, New Zealand selectors have chosen to rest some frontliners.
And so lock-turned-flanker Vaea Fifita will start a test for the first time on the blindside, touted by coach Steve Hansen as ''a really, really good athlete - probably one of the best athletes I've had anything to do with in terms of sheer ability.''
Fifita has a chance to stake a claim for a more regular starting role as veteran blindsider Jerome Kaino remains absent for personal reasons while recent form struggles suggest his long career may be near its end. Liam Squire was oustanding in Kaino's place in the first Bledisloe Cup test but Hansen is looking to Fifita to bring some of Kaino's raw physical style to the role.
''I want to see a real physical beast that we know he can be,'' Hansen said. ''We're expecting a lot from him because we believe he's got a lot in him.''
Ardie Savea also has a chance for a rare test start on the openside. Sam Cane has commanded that role since the retirement of Richie McCaw and Savea has been valued for his impact from the bench. He has a chance on Saturday to show he can sustain a high level of performance in a starting role.
Winger Nehe Milner-Skudder will play his first test since the 2015 World Cup final after finally overcoming a series of injuries and his return is welcomed as the All Blacks have found their wing stocks thinner than expected. Milner-Skudder usually plays on the right wing but will move to the left where Ioane has recently taken over from Julian Savea.
The absence of Crotty and Ben Smith, who is taking an extended break from rugby, will likely damage the organization of the All Blacks' backline. Anton Lienert-Brown takes over from Crotty but may struggle to show his best form, playing outside Sonny Bill Williams.
Hansen said the All Blacks would meet an Argentina team in the process of change.
''We know they're strong up front and, when they're put under pressure, that's what they usually go back to,'' he said. ''They've also tried to grow their running game.
''They're in the middle stage of trying to change who they are. Through Super Rugby they've developed more of a rounded game.''
Some of Argentina's changing style may be reflected in its selection on Saturday. While two major changes are forced by injuries - Nicolas Sanchez returns at flyhalf in place of injured Juan Martin Hernandez and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro takes over at tighthead prop from Ramiro Herrera, who has a back strain. Others show a change of approach.
Coach Daniel Hourcade said Argentina picks the players in considers best suited to each game. For that reason Benjamin Macome displaces Juan Manuel Leguizamon at No. 8 and Javier Ortega Desio takes over from Tomas Lezana on the openside, bringing mobility to the backrow.
Center Matias Moroni and winger Santiago Cordero might inject some dynamism into a backline which has been sluggish at times this season.
Hourcade has also moved to address the ill-discipline that was costly against South Africa by dropping lock Tomas Lavanini, who was sent off in the second of those two games.
Scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli said the Pumas are not dwelling on those defeats.
''We are quality team with quality players and quality human beings inside so we don't have to be desperate or panic,'' he said.