Mendoza, Argentina: Argentina’s Australian coach Michael Cheika is expecting a tough battle up front in the Pumas’ Rugby Championship opener against the Wallabies in Mendoza today.
Cheika made six changes to the pack he picked in last month’s series decider against Scotland for the clash against Dave Rennie’s side.
Captain and hooker Juan Montoya returns in a completely new front row while Cheika also made two changes in the back row and one at lock.
Cheika is expecting fireworks from both packs as he builds his team with one eye on next year’s World Cup in France.
“We’re still only one month together as a coaching team and playing group,” said Cheika.
“We’re focussing on ourselves and the combinations we have within the team, communication, game plan, technique on the most important thing in this game: the scrum, maul, ruck. That’s very important for our team.”
Asked if he had any specific goals for this tournament - in which Argentina have finished with the wooden spoon eight times in 10 previous participations - Cheika showed the Rugby Championship was secondary to his main target.
“The objective is very clear for us, it is putting the team in a situation where they can be competitive with all the big teams: top ranked teams, middle ranked teams and teams that are coming up because that’s what we will meet in the World Cup.”
Argentina lost every match in last season’s Rugby Championship and failed to even pick up a losing bonus point - their tightest game being a 15-point defeat.
But the Pumas were thrown into disarray more than most by the coronavirus pandemic which saw their Jaguares Super Rugby franchise effectively broken up and their players all looking for new employers.
Until July’s series against Scotland, Argentina had not played at home in almost three years.
And while they haven’t beaten Australia since 2018 - although they drew both tournament matches in 2020 - Rennie believes they will be a different proposition to 12 months ago.
“Argentina will be full of confidence after their home series win over Scotland and we know we’ll need to be at our best to get a good result on Saturday afternoon,” Rennie said.
Rennie has also freshened up his side with seven changes from the team that lost their series decider against England last month, including a debut for blindside Jed Holloway and a return from injury for mercurial fly-half Quade Cooper.
The Pumas have changed coaches since last season with former Wallabies head coach Cheika taking over from Mario Ledesma and Australia center Len Ikitau has already seen a different style under his countryman.
“Obviously last year we played them, we won both games but we know they are a different type of team (now),” he told reporters.
“We’ve watched some footage of them, the way they counter, they don’t really kick as much as they used to compared to recent years.
“We know they’re going to be dangerous from all over the park.
“For us it’s about fronting up in defense and staying switched on.”
Australia have not won the Rugby Championship since the truncated 2015 tournament leading up to the World Cup that year.
But with back-to-back games against first Argentina and then South Africa, they have the ideal preparation ahead of their final two matches against the tournament’s dominant force, New Zealand.
“I guess they’re build up games for us and as a team we need to play the footy we know we can play and keep building on every week” up to the All Blacks matches, said Ikitau.
In 36 previous clashes between the two sides, Argentina have won just six times with three draws and 27 Wallaby wins.
The 2022 Rugby Championship at a glance ahead of first-round matches on Saturday (all kick-off times in GMT):
1st round games today
In Mbombela, South Africa
South Africa v New Zealand (1505)
In Mendoza, Argentina
Argentina v Australia (1910)
Australia’s Quade Cooper (centre) in action against Argentina during the Rugby Championship at Twickenham Stadium in London in this October 8, 2016 file photo. (Reuters)