The bookies have set some fairly farcical odds for the Kiwi’s semi final against the Pumas. Even in a two-horse race, the former are apparently the surest of sure things.
While the Mole doesn’t see an upset in this particular match, he’s far from convinced that the All Blacks are a certainty to go all the way. They’ve looked commanding and sharp for the majority of the minutes they’ve spent on the playing field in the group stages, true, but Dan Carter’s injury has changed everything.
And Carter’s absence isn’t the only worry in the minds of the hydra. Centurion Richie McCaw is playing through pain with a surgically repaired foot which requires constant medical attention. No8 Kieran Read is trying to find his way back into top form after his first fifty minutes of the tournament against Canada. Going into the World Cup, it would have been hard to argue against the contention that those three players were New Zealand’s best. One of them is now totally crocked, one of them is playing injured, and one of them is just coming back from injury.
Aside from these serious structural problems, they’ve got a lot of other injury nicks to contend with. Back three players Kahui, Dagg and Guildford are all out of contention with hamstring/thigh injuries, and backrow back-up Adam Thomson has a dicky ankle. Big Bad Brad Carnegie Thorn is full of endeavour on the pitch and an important feel-good presence, but age has finally caught up with the old warhorse … and in dramatic fashion. He has gone from being amongst the most ruthless and physical second-rows in the game to a guy whose leadership looks to be the only thing keeping him in the team.
So the All Blacks are goosed, right? Nah. They’ve got the best centre partnership in the world in Nonu [who is right up there for any imaginary group stage player of the tournament gong] and Snake Smith, as well as Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums, a man who creates huge gaps for his team-mates by necessitating the defensive attention of two or three opposition tacklers every time he gets on the ball. Mils Muliaina – who earns his hundredth cap on Sunday – isn’t exactly a bad replacement to call in at fullback. What a player!
The Kiwis have two top quality hookers in beer drinkin’, fun havin’ Andrew Hore and flinty Keven Mealamu, and the best young tighthead in the world in Owen Franks; maybe you could forget about the ‘young’ part and say he’s just the best tighthead in the world, full stop. Jerome Kaino is playing at a world class level on the blindside. The Mole saw a lot of the 2004 U21 World Cup when he was the best player in the tournament [and subsequently won the IRB Junior Player of the Year award for his troubles] and was for a long time a little disappointed with his performances in the senior ranks. I feel that he has really only lived up to his potential in the last two seasons, but he’s now making the impact that his physical talent always threatened. He has been the best All Black forward in the competition to date. However, I feel that also says something about Sir Ruchie’s relatively subdued form and the inadequacies of both Thomson and Vito as a replacement for Read.
The Argentines will bring the bronca and a defensive effort to match anybody left in the tournament, but are the most limited team in the quarter finals. Despite running up a decent total against Romania, they have in general struggled to score – and not just tries. Kickers Felipe Contepomi and Martín Rodriguez Gurruchaga have missed more than they’ve got from placed kicks.
Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe is a huge loss for them at No8, especially in light of the problems the Kiwis have had in that position over the tournament. The second row pairing of Albacete and Carizza is an excellent, sometimes overlooked duo. Albacete in particular is a great all-rounder – a good operator at the lineout, a tidy footballer close in to the breakdown and a workhorse who brings a hell of a lot of oomph to his rucking. Carizza isn’t quite at his level, but similarly can be relied upon to bash into rucks with good effect and leave it all out on the pitch for his country.
The front row isn’t the same dominant unit it was four years ago. Scelzo now starts on the bench, his place at tighthead taken by Montpellier’s Juan Figallo. Puma legend Ledesma – one of the truly great hookers of the professional era – is even further down the path that Brad Thorn is on. He gets by on wiles, heart and the enormous leadership and reassurance he brings to his compatriots, but he’s not the fearsome player he was in the last tournament. How could he be? He’s almost 40 years old. Roncero is ticking along at a good rate, however, and his match up with Franks will be an entertaining battle. There’s a decade between them and a huge gulf in their personalities. Roncero is a chatterbox and a medical doctor with a lifetime’s worth of experience, whereas Franks is a stoic Kiwi youngster with nothing but rugby in his life from the time he entered his teens.
Santiago Phelan has paired Felipe Contepomi and Marcello Bosch in the centres, with Hindu man Santiago Fernandez at outhalf. He’ll be going up against altar boy Colin Slade, which isn’t exactly the baptism of fire that a knock-out game against Dan Carter would have been. Rumours were circulated in the French rugby media that El Mago, the great Juan Martin Hernandez, was going to be called into the Pumas squad as a replacement for Fernandez Lobbe; unfortunately, these have proved false. Nothing against Fernandez, but a half-fit El Mago would have been a risk worth taking in the Mole’s book. Slade is a weak-point in the Kiwi team, and an all-or-nothing shot at attacking him had a chance, however small, of paying off.
Just like the bookies, I can’t see New Zealand losing this match under any circumstance. The manner of their display in winning it, however, will go a long way to showing the rugby world if they can bring the Webb-Ellis trophy back home for the first time since 1987.