History leaves wounded ABs wary of Pumas
The form book says it will be New Zealand all the way over Argentina in their World Cup quarterfinal on Sunday, but the All Blacks know from bitter experience nothing can be taken for granted.
Despite a raft of injuries forcing a makeshift look to the team, particularly in the backs, coach Graham Henry has the pack he wants to confront Argentina in what is shaping as a titanic forward battle.
But to get his top eight on the paddock means playing inspirational captain Richie McCaw, despite a foot injury which has limited his training.
Ful-back Mils Muliaina gets his chance to become the second All Black behind McCaw to play 100 tests after injury ruled out Israel Dagg who joined Richard Kahui and Zac Guildford on the unavailable roster.
The Pumas have never beaten New Zealand in 13 attempts but history shows the All Blacks have trouble dealing with knockout contests, notably losing to France in the 2007 quarterfinals.
"There's a lot of pressure and we've known about that pressure over the years. If you don't perform you're out," said Henry, was also in charge of the All Blacks when they made their early exit four years ago.
Argentina back themselves in a physical contest but New Zealand's tight-five forwards are match fit despite injuries all around them.
Hooker Keven Mealamu was rested for the opening pool game against Tonga while Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock featured in every pool match.
Argentina have been bolstered by the inclusion of prop Rodrigo Roncero after the renowed scrummager passed a fitness test on Friday.
His selection means the only change to the Pumas side that pipped Scotland 13-12 two weeks ago is the inclusion of Leonardo Senatore at No 8, replacing Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who suffered a tournament-ending knee injury in that match.
Argentina centre Marcelo Bosch said if their forwards could help the side stay with New Zealand in the early stages, they had a shot at causing a stunning upset.
"We need to control the ball, and give it everything for the first 15 minutes and not concede any points. If in those 15 minutes they do not score, we could show them that we are there and that everything is posible," Bosch explained.
While All Blacks have their most potent loose trio together for the first time in the tournament, Henry conceded only team enforcer Jerome Kaino can claim to be at full power.
Backrower Kieran Read is underdone, having played 50 minutes against Canada last week in his first game since an ankle injury in August and McCaw is taking only a limited part in training because of his foot.
"I think Richie's got a challenge on. He hasn't played for a while and he's not preparing as he normally does so it's going to be a big mental challenge for him," Henry said.
Argentina's well-established game plan is built around a big scrum, driving in the lineout, a huge physical presence at the breakdown and putting the ball in the air which will test Sonny Bill Williams who has been converted from centre to wing to plug an injury gap.
Debate continues in New Zealand whether inexperienced Colin Slade is the right person to steer the side in the absence of injured playmaker Dan Carter but the fly-half said he was not overawed by the occasion.
"I'm going out there to be me," Slade insisted. "I'm not going out there to be DC (Dan Carter).
"I'm going to play my game and lead the team the best way I know how."