Despite being pushed hard by Australia and Argentina in earlier rounds, table-topping New Zealand are on target to break the record they set last year for points and tries in a single edition of The Rugby Championship as the competition resumes this Saturday.
The All Blacks are averaging 6.8 tries and 46.3 points per game compared to 6.3 and 43.7 in 2016 and will wrap up a fifth Rugby Championship title if victorious against bottom-placed Argentina in Buenos Aires this weekend, irrespective of the result of the other match between South Africa and Australia in Bloemfontein.
In addition to uncapped replacement full-back David Havili, the matchday 23 for Saturday also features a number of other changes in the backs from the record 57-0 win against South Africa in Albany. Anton Lienert-Brown (pictured) has been named at outside centre, Waisake Naholo is on the right wing for his first match in the competition this year, while Ngani Laumape will provide extra back cover.
In the forwards, Luke Romano and Scott Barrett have been named as the starting second-rows, with Patrick Tuipulotu set to make his first appearance of 2017 if he comes off the bench. Vaea Fifita is at blindside flanker and Matt Todd at openside in his fourth test start.
“We’ve selected what we believe is a quality team and have high expectations that they’ll go out and put in a strong performance this weekend,” said Hansen.
New Zealand’s record as the longest-standing team at the top of the World Rugby Rankings is not in danger even if they suffer an historic loss in the Argentinian capital due to the sizeable gap between themselves and second-placed England. But the difference between the two-top ranked teams would be reduced from just over five points to, at best, a fraction over three.
Argentina will climb above France and Fiji into eighth place should they upset the odds and beat the All Blacks at the 26th attempt in fully-capped internationals.
Head coach Daniel Hourcade has made three changes to the team that lost 45-20 to Australia in round four, including the return of veteran back-row Juan Manuel Leguizamón and second-row Tomas Lavanini to the starting line-up. The only other change of personnel comes in the backs with Joaquin Tuculet replacing Emiliano Boffelli at full-back. Boffelli shifts to the wing as a result.
Third place in the rankings is on the line when South Africa take on Australia in a match the Springboks need to win to stand any chance of keeping their title hopes alive. Allister Coetzee’s men trail the All Blacks by eight points going into the penultimate round of the Rugby Championship.
Realistically, the home side need to win with a bonus point and then hope that Los Pumas do them a favour at the Velez Sarsfield to set up a winner-takes-all decider with the All Blacks at Newlands in Cape Town on 7 October.
Looking for a response to their comprehensive loss to the All Blacks last time out, Coetzee has made four changes to the squad. Francois Louw (pictured) is set to earn his 53rd cap on the flank, while Dillyn Leyds will make his fourth appearance and first start on the wing, in place of Raymond Rhule.
Scrum-half Ross Cronje has recovered from the illness that forced him to miss the record defeat to New Zealand in round four, while hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle returns to the fold after a four-year absence and is named on the bench.
Encouragingly for the Springboks, none of the last seven games between the sides has resulted in an away victory, with Australia’s last success in South Africa coming in 2011, since when they have lost four on the spin in the country.
Meanwhile, Michael Cheika has taken the opportunity to blood three rookies in the Bloemfontein cauldron, handing Izack Rodda, Jack Dempsey and Marika Koroibete their first test starts.
Rodda comes in ahead of Rob Simmons, Dempsey gets the nod ahead of Ned Hanigan and Koroibete, having made his debut against Argentina a fortnight ago, has been preferred to Henry Speight.
A repeat of the 23-23 draw in Perth earlier this month would result in the Springboks losing 0.45 of a point and dropping one place to fourth with Ireland the beneficiaries.
The most the Springboks can gain in victory is 0.81 of a point, for a win of more than 15 points, while even a narrow win for the Wallabies would see them replace the Springboks in third.
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