After securing third place at the last World Cup Argentina have a hard act to follow in New Zealand, and their credentials will be seriously tested in their opening game once more this year.
The Pumas were the surprise package of the 2007 World Cup, finishing third after upsetting host France in the opening game of the tournament. They also beat the French a second time to win the third-place match but since then they have lost many of the influential players who took them to such lofty heights.
In one small mercy, the Pumas first match against England on September 10 at least gives them a chance for some local support. For the first time since 1995, Argentina will not be playing the host country in the tournament's opening match.
Argentina's other matches in Pool B are against Scotland, Georgia and Romania.
Captain Felipe Contepomi says his team will try to avoid a World Cup quarterfinal with host New Zealand by beating England and finishing atop the pool.
He told a news conference in Dunedin, New Zealand on Friday that his team was not yet looking as far ahead as the quarterfinals, but said a good start against England might avoid the possibility of an early knock-out match against the All Blacks.
"World Cups are unbelievable in terms of anything can happen," he said. "Obviously, for me, the All Blacks are the big favourite in the tournament. Everyone will try to avoid them if they can."
Expectations are high and, judging from the Pumas' 28-13 loss to Wales in their final World Cup warmup match, they may be difficult to meet.
"I'm happy with the play of the team," Pumas coach Santiago Phelan said after the Wales loss. "It's a step forward and we are headed in the right direction."
Phelan has won only six of 19 tests since replacing Marcelo Loffreda as coach in 2008. He was a top Argentine player and led the Pumas to a famous victory over Ireland at the 1999 World Cup, but this will be his first big test as a coach.
In a bold headline, Buenos Aires newspaper La Nacion described Argentina heading to New Zealand as "A Worrying Reality."
Argentina will be led by veteran players like Mario Ledesma and Rodrigo Roncero in the front row, Stade Toulousain lock Patricio Albacete, and Contepomi. The one big absence is fullback Juan Martin Hernandez, who was left out of the World Cup squad with a knee injury.
"We have to improve quickly because the World Cup is just around the corner," Contepomi said before the team's departure for New Zealand. "We have to reach our potential by September 10."
Both Phelan and skipper Contepomi are confident that the game plan against Wales was right, but explained that the execution broke down because of individual errors.
"We wanted to keep possession longer and dominate," Phelan said. "Our mistakes on tries might have been caused by a lack of concentration or being tired. But the other team has something to do with it, too."
Contepomi said one of the strengths of Argentina will be its "physical play."
"We responded against Wales - which is a very physical team - with our own contact. I don't think they outdid us in that part of the game."
Forward Manuel Carizza pointed to Argentina's lack of Test matches to explain its rusty play leading up to the World Cup.
"Wales is a great team, and they have more competition under their belt," Carizza said. "We've got to fix the mistakes work on details. At this level, you pay dearly for mistakes."
While rugby in Europe, South Africa and Australasia has embraced the professionalism of the new era, the sport remains decidedly amateur in football-dominated Argentina.
Argentine players travel mainly to Europe to earn a living, making it difficult to pull a national training squad together or to organize regular Test matches.
That is all set to change next year when Argentina joins an expanded Southern Hemisphere tournament with existing Tri-Nations members New Zealand, Australia and defending World Cup champion South Africa. They are the top three ranked teams in the world.
A shot against No. 1-ranked New Zealand could come well ahead of 2012. If Argentina finishes second in Pool B, it will face the winner of Pool A in the quarterfinals - likely to be favorite New Zealand. If Argentina manages to win the pool, they will likely meet a slightly less daunting opponent in France.
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