AUCKLAND, Sept 2 (Reuters) – Undercooked but not overawed, Argentina woke up on Friday after a long flight to New Zealand talking up their chances of rugby World Cup success and emulating their third-place finish four years ago.
The south Americans touched down in Dunedin late on Thursday ahead of their opening Pool B match against England on Sept. 10 and were confident they could surprise the world again despite their problematic preparations.
“To be champions. At least I have the dream,” veteran hooker Mario Ledesma confidently told reporters on Friday when asked of the team’s goal for the Sept. 9-Oct. 23 event.
“The goal was not imposed on us, but the coaches told us to reach the quarter-finals at least.”
The Argentines surprised many with their run four years ago after beating hosts France in the opening match and then in the playoff for third, backed by their gifted flyhalf Juan Martin Hernandez and a tight defensive game plan. Few have tipped them to match Ledesma’s prediction or even emulate their previous World Cup performance after the loss of Hernandez through injury, the development of the rules which have favoured more attacking sides and their lack of matches.
“Since the last World Cup all the other squads have played 40 Tests and we have played 18,” Ledesma said of Argentina’s schedule which will be boosted by their entrance into the existing Tri-Nations tournament next year.
“The last 14 months is the only time we have had to train together and I hope that this is what shows on the pitch.”
Argentina showed glimpses of their skills as they attempted to shake off the rust in their World Cup warm-up match against Wales in Cardiff last month but fell to a 28-13 defeat.
“Obviously we would like more games, but you can sit down and moan or take it by the horns, and we’re just trying to make the most of it,” captain Felipe Contepomi told reporters.
Argentina’s exploits four years ago meant they were made top seeds in Pool B but 2003 winners and Six Nations champions England are considered favourites to win the group and come out on top in their clash at the newly-built Otago Stadium.
“The last World Cup is the last World Cup, but it’s finished for us and this is another team and another history,” Contepomi said.
“I think that they (England) are better than us and that they will be better than us after the game as well, but in this 80 minutes anything can happen.
“We were also in this situation in the last World Cup. We always feel we need to play those 80 minutes, you always start at zero-zero. I’m not saying we will beat them, but we can.”
England, however, were wary on being cast as favourites for the first heavyweight clash of the tournament at the roof enclosed venue.
“I don’t suppose anyone likes the tag of favourites, whether they’re first, third, fifth, seventh or whatever. I know that we’ve got an incredibly tough group,” forwards coach John Wells told reporters of Pool B which also features Georgia, Romania and old rivals Scotland.
“We’ve got a team that over the last three or four years has been regularly placed higher than us in the IRB rankings, that finished third in the last World Cup, that’s got a number of high-quality individuals and are a well-coached team in Argentina.
England have shown an improvement in their performances this year and signed off their programme of warm-up internationals with a 20-9 win in Dublin against Ireland last Saturday.
“While people have started to count their chickens with England a little bit, we have got to be a little bit more respectful of the opposition we’ve got to play against,” Wells warned.
England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson was also cautious. “Form is a good thing to have behind you but it only counts if you make it count,” Wilkinson said. “The interesting thing with World Cups is you never know how they’re going to go. You look at the weather, you look at the historical side of things, you look at the teams, it doesn’t matter.”