Henry's presence unsettles NZ
The presence of World Cup-winning All Blacks coach Graham Henry in the visiting coaches' box during Saturday's test between Argentina and New Zealand will be a small but unsettling factor for a home team expected to easily extend its unbeaten start to the Rugby Championship.
Only 10 months after leading New Zealand to Cup victory at Auckland's Eden Park, Henry returns as a technical adviser to the Argentina team, resplendent in its light blue training strip and welcomed by head coach Santiago Phelan into his inner circle.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, who spent eight years as Henry's assistant before succeeding him after the World Cup, admitted to mixed feelings about seeing his old boss so publicly draped in an opponent's colors ahead of a home test match.
"Laughter, disappointment, there were a whole range of emotions," Hansen said. "I don't think we should make this about Graham Henry, we should make this about the All Blacks and Argentina because it's a special occasion, it's the first time in the Rugby Championship that we've played them."
Hansen said Henry's close involvement with the Pumas likely contained positive and negative elements for the All Blacks.
"Personally, you've got a split decision," he said. "You're thinking, 'Here's a guy who has been intimate with the (All Blacks) team for a long time and hopefully he doesn't tell them everything.'
"On the other hand it's really exciting because we've moved on a bit from when he was here. Because he is a great student of the game, to have him prepare a side to play against you, at the end of it we'll find out whether we've got any weaknesses or not. So that in itself is quite exciting."
The New Zealand Rugby Union contracted Henry for two years after the World Cup to work as a mentor with its high-performance coaches. It also agreed to offer his services to Argentina to help prepare the Pumas for their first involvement in the Rugby Championship, the expanded former Tri-Nations tournament.
The union envisaged that Henry's role would be less "hands on" than it has ultimately become and chief executive Steve Tew this week indicated some unease with his very close involvement. But Tew said when Henry signed on with the Auckland Blues as a technical coach, he ceased to be an employee of the New Zealand union.
"We wouldn't have been comfortable under the contract we had with him, but he's a free agent and he can make his own calls," Tew said. "We always envisaged he'd help prepare Argentina for this championship as part of the commitment we made to them coming into the (tournament).
"We wanted them to be able to put their best foot forward and we knew they had a bit of ground to make up."
Henry said New Zealanders had nothing to fear from his involvement with the Pumas.
"You can't misrepresent the role," he said. "I'm with the Argentinian side this week and next week and the two games against Australia and New Zealand, as I have been for the previous three weeks.
"I think the New Zealand public are delighted one of the lesser lights of world rugby are getting some assistance. I think it's different to helping coach one of the teams that's traditionally in the top echelon, like England or Australia or South Africa."
How much of an influence Henry will be able to have on the Pumas in Saturday's match is hard to determine. They played boldly in both of their opening matches against the Springboks, losing narrowly in South Africa and drawing 16-16 at home, where they were only deprived of an historic win by a late charge-down try.
New Zealand and Argentina have met 14 times since 1985 and the All Blacks have won 13 matches and drawn one. On paper, and after New Zealand's two commanding wins over Australia in its first two matches, this test should be one-sided.
But the All Blacks realise they will have to overcome the Pumas' two traditional strengths, their powerful forward play and solid, well-organised defense.
The return of veteran prop Tony Woodcock to the forward pack strengthens the All Blacks for the inevitable scrum confrontation and Conrad Smith's return at centre is likely to add order to a New Zealand backline which has been scratchy in its first two outings.
The late loss of flyhalf Dan Carter to a calf muscle injury might unsettle the All Blacks, though his understudy Aaron Cruden has been in excellent form.
The Pumas are also reinforced by the return of flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez and flanker Juan Manuel Leguizamon who missed the draw with South Africa and bring the experience of 73 joint test appearances to the starting line-up.
Coach Phelan said the Rugby Championship was a learning experience for Argentina which had previously lacked top flight international competition.
"This championship is not the World Cup but the level of toughness is bigger because at the World Cup you don't have each game against the best teams in the world and you don't have this travel," Phelan said. "We want to grow up like a team. We want to improve our play with the ball, our attack system, our organisation in defense and keep developing players at this level - to play with the intensity that New Zealand and Australia, South Africa play at.
"Before this we'd play six games in a year, three in June, three in November," he added, saying the new championship "is very good for us."