New Zealand will go into Saturdays Rugby World Cup clash with Argentina as favourites despite suffering several injury setbacks which will give the Pumas hope of striking an upset.
Having been decimated by injuries Graham Henry’s side will be hoping to come through unscathed against an Argentinean side that has failed to defeat them on 13 previous occasions.
The All Blacks were already missing star out-half Dan Carter after he was ruled out of the tournament with a groin injury, while captain Richie Mc Caw has been slowed by a bothersome foot injury, all tournament.
As if that wasn’t enough, Fullback Israel Dagg and wingers, Richard Kahui and Zach Guilford, whose four tries against Canada had put him in contention to start, has also been ruled out.
Guilford pulled up lame during a training session and after a scan has been diagnosed with a minor hamstring tear, which will rule him out of the quarterfinals. Kahui and Dagg have also been bothered by leg injuries.
The loss deprives New Zealand of some serious firepower as the trio have combined for 13 tries in seven games at the World Cup.
In their absence Sonny Bill Williams will be given the chance to showcase his skills as he and Corey Jane start on the wing. Mils Muliana will start at fullback, in doing so he becomes only the second All Black to play 100 tests after McCaw.
The task of replacing Carter will fall to Colin Slade, a twenty three year old who has played just nine times at international level.
Slade looked lost at times when involved in the Tri Nations. He is however a prodigious talent, having burst onto the scene at Super 14 level at the age of 19, often playing fullback in the same Crusaders side as Carter. There is no on in New Zealand doubting his potential.
However there is no masking the loss of Carter, international rugby’s all time leading point scorer. Even if New Zealand makes it past the Pumas this loss could hurt them later on in the competition
It appears as if McCaw will be able to start after the three time IRB international player of the year was held out of the Canada game due to the foot injury that has troubled him since he had surgery on it in February.
Having McCaw back is a huge boost for the All Blacks although the flanker has looked far from 100%in the tournament and it remains to be seen how effective he will be come Sunday given that the coaches have limited him in training.
Elsewhere the big challenge for the All Blacks will be about gaining parity up front. Both sides boast fearsome front fives who will not back down and the battle at scrum time in particular is likely to be ferocious.
Despite all the injuries the All Blacks should still have too much fire power for an Argentina side that has struggled to score points in the competition. The lively centre partnership of Marcelo Bosch and former Leinster man Felipe Contepomi will need to be on top form in both defence and attack if there is to be an upset.
The Pumas are the only side left in the competition that failed to score over 100 points in the pool stages and one would expect that their forward orientated game will struggle to keep pace with the Kiwis.
If they are to pull off a shock they will need to dominate both the set piece the exchanges in the trenches. Their chances of doing so will be helped by having prop Roderigo Roncero fit after the veteran was a doubt over the week.
Even more importantly remain on the right side of referee Nigel Owens. The Welsh referee has been no stranger to controversy after being accused by Samoa’s Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu of showing bias in the pool game against South Africa.
Argentina’s experienced side is full of passion and will not make it easy but one would still favour the All Blacks to advance to a mouth-watering semi final clash against either South Africa or Australia.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Sonny Bill Williams, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Samuel Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Isaia Toeava.
Argentina: 15 Martín Rodríguez, 14 Gonzalo Camacho, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Felipe Contepomi (capt), 11 Horacio Agulla, 10 Santiago Fernández, 9 Nicolás Vergallo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamón, 6 Julio Farias Cabello, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Juan Figallo, 2 Mario Ledesma, 1 Rodrigo Roncero.
Replacements: 16 Agustín Creevy, 17 Martín Scelzo, 18 Marcos Ayerza, 19 Alejandro Campos, 20 Alfredo Lalanne, 21 Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino, 22 Juan Jose Imhoff.