PARIS: Argentina and New Zealand weren’t supposed to get this far after losing their opening games at the Rugby World Cup. The Pumas were seen as no-hopers, the All Blacks perceived as a faded force.
Both proved their doubters wrong to set up a semifinal showdown on Friday at Stade de France that few tipped to happen.
Reaching a final is unchartered waters for Argentina, while a fifth final in 10 tournaments is on offer for big-stage-veteran New Zealand.
“The history is not in our favor but it is up to us to change that,” Argentina coach Michael Cheika said. “We have a chance to on Friday and we will be ready.”
After a humiliating 27-10 defeat to 14-man England, the Argentines were written off and then only scraped past Samoa 19-10. After routing Chile 59-5 the Pumas concluded with a tense 39-27 win against Japan. Last weekend, they rallied twice to beat Wales 29-17 in the quarterfinals.
Cheika urged his players to remember both what got them this far and what it means back home.
“We want to inspire not just by our results but by our ambition, by our ability to get back up and overcome obstacles,” he said. “There are not a lot of opportunities in life — us playing in a semifinal is an even rarer chance and we want to have no regrets.”
The final will be against another team which wasn’t supposed to make it to the semis — England — or defending champions South Africa.
“Everyone is expecting a New Zealand and South Africa final,” Cheika said. “We just have to play our part in making sure that we are clear about what is going to be required when the heat comes on.”
The heat was on New Zealand a few weeks ago.
After losing by an unheard of 35-7 to South Africa in their final warmup, and then succumbing 27-13 to host France in their World Cup opener, the All Blacks were not considered good enough to go the distance by many observers. But coach Ian Foster’s side scored 240 points in routing Namibia, Italy and Uruguay and incredibly withstood a final attack of 37 phases to down top-ranked Ireland 28-24 last Saturday.
After seeing his side battling so hard, Foster certainly won’t take the Pumas lightly.
“Firstly, you’ve never heard us say we’re favorites. We know these games are do or die,” he said. “We have learnt to greatly respect Argentina. They have a history of overachieving at the World Cup.”
Foster summoned left winger Mark Tele’a from purgatory to face an Argentina side which changed only their scrumhalf to play Gonzalo Bertranou in anticipation of a much faster game than against Wales.
Tele’a was axed from the quarterfinal against Ireland after breaking curfew and replaced by Leicester Fainga’anuku, who scored the All Blacks’ opening try. But repentant Tele’a was back in the team’s good graces.
“We have got faith in him,” Foster said.
In New Zealand’s second change, lock Sam Whitelock starts ahead of Brodie Retallick with a chance to become the first player in tournament history to appear in three finals. Whitelock was a World Cup winner in 2011 and 2015.
New Zealand was wary of history repeating itself. The All Blacks were favorites in 2019 and crushed by England in the semifinals. Nearer in time, the All Blacks enjoyed a great win against South Africa at Ellis Park last year then suffered their first loss at home to Argentina, two years after their first loss ever to the Pumas.
“We were the first (Argentina team) to beat New Zealand (in New Zealand), it confirms we can beat anyone,” Pumas captain Julian Montoya said. “As soon as you get on the field you must believe you can win.”
Led by the greatness of Lionel Messi, Argentina’s soccer team won their third World Cup last year so it’s hard to knock soccer off top perch. But everyone is rallying behind the rugby team.
“We know there are people watching on TV, even football fans have been taking part in Argentina,” Montoya said. “That is something that is important to us. We want to thank people and fight for them.”
In its third Rugby World Cup semifinal, Argentina aim to reach their first final compared to six for the soccer team.
Winger Emiliano Boffelli will draw on the memories of last year, when he kicked six penalties and converted Juan Martin Gonzalez’s try to propel Argentina to a momentous 25-18 win in Christchurch.
“To beat the All Blacks we need to play a perfect game,” he said. “I remember that game in Christchurch, where all of our tackles were effective, all the players were re-organizing themselves, all the players were getting back in their places. We can do it again.”
Argentina: Juan Cruz Mallia, Emiliano Boffelli, Lucio Cinti, Santiago Chocobares, Mateo Carreras, Santiago Carreras, Gonzalo Bertranou; Facundo Isa, Marcos Kremer, Juan Martin Gonzalez, Tomas Lavanini, Guido Petti, Francisco Gómez Kodela, Julian Montoya (captain), Thomas Gallo. Reserves: Agustín Creevy, Joel Sclavi, Eduardo Bello, Matias Alemanno, Rodrigo Bruni, Lautaro Bazan Velez, Nicolas Sanchez, Matías Moroni.
New Zealand: Beauden Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Mark Tele’a, Richie Mo’unga, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Shannon Frizell, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Tyrel Lomax, Codie Taylor, Ethan de Groot. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tamaiti Williams, Fletcher Newell, Brodie Retallick, Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown.