The dramatic fall from grace of Argentina captain Pablo Matera created a bizarre prelude to the Wallabies’ final Test of the year against the Pumas at Parramatta on Saturday night. Matera, who had received much praise for his inspirational leadership during the Tri Nations series, was sacked as captain and suspended after the re-surfacing of almost decade-old racist tweets directed at black South Africans.
Matera’s old tweets were reportedly dug up and shared on social media as part of the Argentine public’s anger over the Pumas’ perceived lack of respect for football great Diego Maradona, who died last week.
The Pumas wore black armbands in their Test against the All Blacks in Newcastle on Saturday night to honour Maradona’s memory, but it was seemingly not enough. The All Blacks unwittingly poured fuel on the fire by laying a black jersey with Maradona’s name and the number 10 on the halfway line, creating the impression they cared more about the national hero than the Pumas did.
The All Blacks then thrashed the Pumas 38-0, which some in Argentina also may have felt dishonoured Maradona. Matera admitted he felt ashamed by the “discriminatory and xenophobic” tweets, but how are the rest of the Pumas feeling, particularly the ones who will face the Wallabies at Bankwest Stadium? Will the Matera affair demoralise the Pumas? Or will it galvanise them?
The Wallabies need to beat Argentina by 101 points to wrest the Tri Nations trophy from the grasp of the All Blacks. Earlier in the week that seemed an impossible target, but if the Pumas lose hope because of the Matera scandal, could the Wallabies pull off a near miracle?
It would be foolish for the Wallabies to bank on the Pumas falling apart under the pressure. Adversity often brings a team together. And there is no one better at creating a siege mentality than Argentina’s Australian coaching consultant Michael Cheika.
Much will depend on the level of support the team receive at the ground. A passionate group of Argentine fans have boisterously barracked for the team during the Tri Nations, singing, dancing and shouting in the stands. If this patriotic party turns up at Bankwest and continues to offer its support, it will show the players they have not lost the confidence of their countrymen and will inspire them.
The key to beating the Pumas is to not allow them to make a good start. The All Blacks made that mistake in their first Test against Argentina, resulting in a historic 25-15 defeat. While the All Blacks’ pre-game tribute to Maradona before the second Test was no doubt sincere, you would be naïve to think the Kiwis were not trying to suppress some of the Pumas’ emotion at the start of the contest with the gesture.
The Wallabies will be confident after their 15-all draw in Newcastle in which they dominated every statistical category except the scoreboard. They will most likely repeat the strategy of playing with width to beat Argentina’s rush defence and run the big Pumas forwards around the field to tire them out, but may look to introduce some new tactics, particularly the inside ball.
The only time the Wallabies really threatened Argentina on the edges was when winger Marika Koroibete scored in the left hand corner on half-time only to be called back for a forward pass from fullback Tom Banks.
Once the Pumas realised what the Wallabies were trying to do they drifted across field in defence and had the Australians covered in the wide channels. If the same thing happens again, the Wallabies need to turn the ball back inside. Attack coach Scott Wisemantel would have learnt the art of the inside ball from the master of the tactic, Eddie Jones, but do Australia have the personnel to execute it?
Perhaps the return of five-eighth James O’Connor from injury and the moving of interim No 10 Reece Hodge to fullback will provide the Wallabies with the extra ball-playing capability they so badly lacked.
With neither Australia nor Argentina realistically a chance to overtake the All Blacks on the Tri Nations table, both sides will be playing for pride. The loser will finish last in the tournament.
The Wallabies finished last on four occasions when the Tri Nations included Australia, New Zealand and South Africa from 1996 to 2011, but they have never collected the wooden spoon in the Rugby Championship, which started in 2012 with the addition of Argentina. It would not be a promising start to Dave Rennie’s career as Wallabies’ coach to lose the Bledisloe Cup for the 18th year in a row and finish last behind New Zealand and Argentina in the re-branded Tri Nations.
The Pumas finished last in the Rugby Championship in seven of the eight years the tournament has been contested. After their upset win against the All Blacks, a victory over the Wallabies would be a further sign of progress and maybe help to win back an angry Argentinian public. While Argentinians are furious with the Pumas, Australian fans are becoming indifferent to the Wallabies, which may be an even more harmful emotion.