New Zealand’s most experienced side ever will take on Argentina on Sunday, looking to shed the “chokers” tag in their quest to become the first side to win back-to-back World Cups.
It was a predictable selection by coach Steve Hansen, saddled with the hard fact that his All Blacks may be defending champions and perennial top-ranked side in the world but they have never won the global championship away from home.
Hansen has made it his mission to prepare the first side to win consecutive titles aware another off-shore failure will re-ignite the chokers label.
To make an emphatic statement in their Wembley match against an Argentina side powered by a bruising pack, the All Blacks will field a team with an average age of 28 and featuring 1,013 caps in the starting XV and a further 316 caps on the bench.
They have never lost to Argentina and barring a stunning upset they should be the two sides to make the playoffs from Pool C which also includes Tonga, Georgia and Namibia.
Argentina fancy themselves up front, so the All Blacks have countered with their current top eight which includes six survivors from the world champion 2011 side.
They are still led by the evergreen Richie McCaw who will be playing his 143rd Test, prop Tony Woodcock is another centurion while the baby of the pack is hooker Dane Coles who already has 30 caps.
Argentina are “a big unit and they’re a good unit,” Hansen said of his decision to take no chances with his selections.
“We expect a real physical battle but they’ve got classy backs too.
“What we know about Rugby World Cups is every team will play at a higher ability than they have prior to it. Everyone gets up for it and we expect that from Argentina.”
Replacement hooker Keven Mealamu referred to the Agustin Creevy-led Argentina as the “masters of the scrums.”
“Their forward pack has been around for a long time. They’re the perfect shape for scrummaging so it will be challenge we are looking forward to,” said Mealamu.
For a brief period when the All Blacks and Argentina last met in July, the Pumas dominated up front and produced two tries from driving mauls, a tactic which coach Daniel Hourcade is keen to reproduce on Sunday.
But he is also mindful he has a backline that is developing as both a solid defensive unit and with skilful attackers out wide.
Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the most experienced of the Pumas with 64 Tests, predicts “a match of high intensity.
“We have been analysing the All Blacks and it is very clear the type of opponent which we will face,” he said with a nod to the try-scoring talents of the All Blacks back three Ben Smith, Julian Smith and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
The Pumas, in turn, have their own points-scoring weapon in Juan Imhoff, the Racing92 wing, who comes into the match in sensational form after scoring three tries when Argentina toppled former world champions South Africa two months ago.
The All Blacks will set two rugby records in the match.
Fly-half Dan Carter who returns to the frontline after multiple injuries in recent years will direct the All Blacks in a world record 89th Test for a player in the 10 jersey in what will be his 107th international.
Woodcock, playing his 104th Test, will equal the world record for a prop held by former England international Jason Leonard.
Ben Smith; Nehe Milner-Skudder, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea; Dan Carter, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (capt), Jerome Kaino; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Owen Franks, Dane Coles,Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Victor Vito, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams.
Joaquin Tuculet; Santiago Cordero, Marcelo Bosch, Juan Martin Hernandez, Juan Imhoff; Nicolas Sanchez, Tomas Cubelli; Leonardo Senatore, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Pablo Matera; Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti; Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Agustin Creevy (capt), Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: Julian Montoya, Lucas Noguera, Ramino Herrera, Mariano Galarza, Juan Manuel Leguizamon, Martin Landajo, Jeronimo De La Fuente, Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino