Great expectations and Wallabies must rise to occasion against Argentina

On a high after beating world champions South Africa twice in a row, the Wallabies will need to come back to earth in a hurry for their danger Test against Argentina in Townsville on Saturday night.

Australia will be heavily expected to defeat Argentina, who are yet to win a match in the Rugby Championship, and that is precisely what makes the Pumas so threatening.

South Africa recorded two comfortable wins against Argentina, while the All Blacks thrashed them twice with Kiwi coach Ian Foster resting several frontline players.

What hope does Argentina have of upsetting a Wallabies side riding high on confidence and self-belief? If history is any guide, very little. The Pumas have only won two of 18 Tests against the Wallabies on Australian soil – an 18-3 win in Brisbane in 1983 and a 23-19 victory on the Gold Coast in 2018.

Sure, Argentina drew with the Wallabies twice in the Tri Nations tournament last year, but as Pumas coach Mario Ledesma observed the Australian side is a “different beast” following the addition of Japan-based inside backs Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi.

It will be a completely different mindset for the Wallabies heading into the Argentina match. The Australians will shed their underdog tag and enter the game as strong favourites.

The twin objectives will be to not allow Argentina to bring them down to their level and to avoid getting carried away with their success against the Springboks.

The Wallabies need to play with the same composure and discipline that were features of their performances against South Africa.

There might be a temptation to revert to the high-tempo, expansive style of game they tried to play unsuccessfully against the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup series, but they would be wise to stick to a formula that actually worked.

The Wallabies played uncharacteristically conservatively in their 28-26 win in the first Test against South Africa on the Gold Coast, but kept the Springboks guessing by moving the ball wide occasionally in their 30-17 win in the second Test in Brisbane last Saturday night. They found a lot of space in the middle of the field.

The Australian forwards should be able to dominate Argentina up front and provide a platform for the backs, who will be itching to attack, but they must remain patient, build pressure and take opportunities when they arise.

The last thing the Wallabies want to do is make a lot of unforced errors which will only keep Argentina in the contest.

Wallabies coach Dave Rennie has made only three changes to the 23-man squad with utility back Reece Hodge starting at fullback in place of the injured Tom Banks, Rob Leota at blindside flanker for his run-on debut and veteran back James O’Connor returning from injury via the reserves bench.

This was an intelligent selection as the Wallabies can potentially secure second place behind the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship with a win against Argentina, and that would be a creditable result for a team that finished last in the Tri Nations last year.

Ideally, if the Wallabies win, Rennie can select players who have not received much – or any – game time for the second Test against Argentina the following week, while refreshing some big-minute players for the upcoming tour of Japan and Europe.

Hodge beat O’Connor and reserve outside back Jordan Petaia for the gold No 15 jersey. If the Wallabies intend to play for field position, Hodge’s massive boot will be helpful, but he was a little uncertain under the high ball when he replaced Banks during the Springboks Test last Saturday.

In his first start for the year at fullback, Hodge will need to be much safer under the high ball on Saturday night because the Pumas will bombard him if they find he is suspect.

The choice of Leota at No 6 was surprising, if only because so much attention focused on Japan-based back-rower Sean McMahon’s return to the Wallabies’ wider squad, but the Melbourne Rebels forward deserves a chance in the starting line-up after some good performances off the bench.

McMahon, who has not played for the Wallabies since 2017, is almost certain to play against Argentina in the second Test next week, possibly at No 8 to give Rob Valetini a rest.

It will be interesting to see if former Wallabies coach and current Pumas assistant, Michael Cheika, has devised any tactics to contain Cooper and Kerevi, who have transformed Australia’s back play.

Cheika was the last Wallabies mentor to coach Cooper. Like Rennie, Cheika recalled Cooper from the international wilderness, but then let him go again. Cheika’s insights into how Cooper and Kerevi combine could be extremely valuable to the Pumas.

This is an important Test against a respected opponent. The Wallabies may have risen up the world rankings, but they can slip down again just as quickly if they are not careful.