RWC 2015: New Zealand plan for quarter-final

New Zealand vs Argentina, 4.45pm, Wembley

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The Independent Online

Meeting Argentina at Wembley Stadium this afternoon is no “gimme” fixture for New Zealand as they open their defence of the World Cup – but All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen is not about to kid anyone that his team are in the toughest pool.

“We believe we’re good enough to plan for a quarter-final at this stage and then, once we’ve earned the right to do that, we have to earn the right to go beyond the quarter-final,” said Hansen, who was an assistant to Graham Henry four years ago when New Zealand beat France in the final in Auckland. “All we’re worried about is getting the first four games out of the way, and getting ready for a quarter-final.”

While other teams are sweating over earning first or second place, the hulking, lugubrious Hansen – a doppelganger of Baron Greenback in the Danger Mouse children’s TV series – is super-confident.

The question of becoming battle-hardened remains – but having the top-ranked squad in the world helps. Hansen was also around in 2007 when New Zealand’s unimpeded stroll through the pool was arguably partially responsible for them crashing out when they came up against France in Cardiff if the last eight.

“We have to deal with the pool and make sure we understand the implications of it,” said Hansen. “That has been reflected in what we have done, Sunday to Saturday, on the training pitch, working a bit harder. We’ve good opposition at training, some of the best players in the world are there. So we can provide ourselves with plenty of opportunities to get match-hardened, if we are not getting it in the pool games.”

The degree of rotation of players will be much scrutinised. Hansen said: “I think people will be surprised just how physical teams like Georgia will be,” indicating the first-choice pack might get another run in the third pool match on Friday week.Argentina, number eight in the world, have only ever won one opening World Cup finals fixture  –  gloriously, against France in Paris in September 2007 – but no country has endured such consistently tough curtain-raisers. The Pumas lost to Fiji, Australia, England, Wales, and Australia again, in 1987, 91, 95, 99 and 2003, respectively, and were edged out 13-9 by England on a nervy night in Dunedin four years ago. The brilliant but often injured back Juan Martin Hernandez slots in at inside centre, alongside fly-half Nicolas Sanchez.

Ben Smith, the All Blacks full-back who is a comparative rookie, with 41 caps to captain Richie McCaw’s 142, described Pumas wing Juan Imhoff – a hat-trick scorer against South Afirca this year – as “dangerous, so we’ve done our homework on them to shut down their space and limit opportunities for players like that.”

Today’s ticket has been one of the hottest for London rugby lovers, and it is the All Blacks’ first World Cup match in England, let alone its capital, since their 1999 semi-final loss to France at Twickenham. No coach has ever picked a team as long in the tooth as New Zealand’s, with a record 1,013 Tests between the starting XV. Among the many luminaries, Dan Carter has never enjoyed a truly fulfilling World Cup in three previous outings, but if his performance against Australia last time out – a 41-13 win in Auckland on 15 August – is anything to go by, the 33-year-old fly-half is ready to shine, with  Beauden Barrett understudying on the bench.

The teams have met 21 times, with New Zealand winning 20 times and one match drawn. In July, in the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks won 39-18 in Christchurch. The Pumas haven’t kept the margin under 15 points in eight meetings since 2006. And New Zealand have never lost a World Cup pool match – hence the double-edged nature of replacement forward Victor Vito’s comment: “We have had sight of them from the (Rugby) Championship. But we appreciate that the World Cup is a different beast.”