New Zealand travel to La Plata knowing a second victory over Argentina would secure the 2014 Rugby Championship title and complete a remarkable hat-trick.
With two rounds of action remaining Steve Hansen’s All Blacks boast a six-point cushion over Australia and South Africa in second and third respectively.
Such a margin means a bonus-point win over the Pumas will see New Zealand extend their Rugby Championship hegemony, having won both titles since the inaugural competition began with the introduction of Argentina in 2012.
Skipper Richie McCaw will equal a 43-year record Saturday, matching legendary lock Colin Meads who made 133 appearances for the All Blacks — 55 Tests and 78 other matches — before his 1971 retirement.
Flanker McCaw has worn the famous black jersey 132 times to date with all but one match against the Barbarians being Tests.
In a 15-year international career, the sheep farmer became an iconic figure, adored by his rugby-loving countrymen and respected by all opponents.
McCaw has developed into a modern rugby colossus, who led hosts New Zealand to the 2011 World Cup title.
While the All Blacks have dominated the Rugby Championship with 15 wins and a draw, Argentina have found life among the elite extremely difficult with one draw and 15 losses.
But New Zealand coach Hansen was quick to praise Argentina, who have lost three of four Championship games this season by seven or fewer points to earn a losing bonus point.
A 28-9 defeat in soggy New Zealand was the only Test in which the Agustin Creevy-skippered South Americans failed to collect a losing bonus point.
“To beat the Pumas we must deliver a quality performance, full of excitement, energy, physicality and accuracy,” stressed the coach.
“The Pumas have been playing very well and are a much improved side since last season. Expectations of a home win among supporters will be high.”
Argentina coach Daniel Hourcade hopes a team lacking injured back-row star Juan Manuel Leguizamon can recover from a “shameful” 32-25 loss in Australia.
“It was our worst performance of the season as we spent most of the time defending,” he said. “The only consolation was that we still came close to a draw.”
Injuries and ill-discipline forced Hansen to change five of the team that started against the Springboks in a 14-10 Wellington win a fortnight ago.
In come centre Malakai Fekitoa, fly-half Beauden Barrett, hooker Keven Mealamu, lock Sam Whitelock while flanker Jerome Kaino, with the injured Ma’a Nonu, suspended Aaron Cruden, father-to-be Dane Cole as well as the dropped Jeremy Thrush and Steven Luatua making way.
Meanwhile, Pumas coach Hourcade has made three changes to his side following their 32-25 reverse against the Wallabies; Tomas Cubelli coming in at scrum-half, Thomas Lavanini returning at lock and Benjamin Macome replacing the injured Juan Manuel Leguizamon.
The weather will be crucial. It’s been a wet week in the Bay and more rain is predicted on Saturday night. It could denude the All Blacks of some of their attacking weapons and kicking will be crucial. Have they learned from their mistakes in Sydney? The Pumas’ scrum is a beast and the All Blacks’ pack need to stick to their task or they could be backpedalling at a rate of knots.
While the Puma’s have performed stronger than anyone predicted in this year’s quad-country competition, beating the All Blacks at home or away, is a tough ask for anyone, let alone a team – somewhat unjustly, ranked outside the top 10.
For the Puma’s to have any chance, they’ll need to force the All Blacks into many, many scrums. But even then, the All Blacks looks too strong across the field. Even with the off-field distraction of Aaron Cruden, the Kiwi’s should walk it in. I’m tipping New Zealand by 18.
All Blacks: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Liam Messam, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Wyatt Crockett
Bench: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Jeremy Thrush, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Colin Slade, Malakai Fekitoa
Argentina: Joaquin Tuculet, Horacio Agulla, Marcelo Bosch, Juan Martin Hernandez, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, Nicolas Sanchez, Martin Landajo, Leonardo Senatore, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Lavanini, Mariano Galarza, Ramiro Herrera, Agustin Creevy (capt), Marcos Ayerza
Bench: Matas Cortese, Lucas Noguera Paz, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Matas Alemanno, Rodrigo Baez, Tomas Cubelli, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Juan Imhoff