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Argentina, New Zealand begin Rugby World Cup finetuning in Andes foothills

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) – The New Zealand All Blacks and Argentina begin their countdowns to the Rugby World Cup today when they meet in Mendoza in the first round of the Rugby Championship.

The city in the foothills of the Andes will be hosting the All Blacks in a test match for the first time and tickets sold out two months ago.

There will be just over 60 days when the match is played until New Zealand runs out against France at Stade du France in the first match of the 2023 World Cup. The Pumas and the All Blacks squads are likely to evolve over that period.

Both lineups contain elements of experimentation as coaches work out their most effective combinations.

Damian McKenzie will start at flyhalf for New Zealand for the third time in his 41st test as All Blacks coach Ian Foster examines his options at number 10 and possible playmaker combinations. Beauden Barrett is at fullback and Richie Mo’unga is on the bench.

“We have clearly got Beauden at fullback and Richie at 10 so we have a bit of a luxury there at the moment,” Foster said. “It’s just a nice vote of confidence in Damian.

File photo of New Zealand All Blacks players after winning over Japan during a rugby test match at the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: AP

“When you have been out of the All Blacks for a while there is always a bit of nerves and I think this is a great way for him to come in and hopefully play from a position of strength.”

McKenzie played in Japan last year in a move which could have ended his international career.

But he has won over Foster as probably the most consistent New Zealand playmaker of the season in Super Rugby.

Argentina recalled tighthead prop Lucio Sardoni, who played his most recent test in 2020 and since then has been regularly sidelined by injuries. There are five changes to the Argentine team from its last test, a loss in Scotland in November.

Emiliano Boffelli will start at fullback, having played every test since Australian Michael Cheika took over as head coach. Julias Montoya will captain the Pumas from hooker with the veteran Agustin Creevy is on the bench.

Last year, the Pumas beat New Zealand away, Australia at home and England away after opening their season with a series win at home against Scotland.

This week, Cheika has been concentrating on one thing after players returned from clubs in Europe.

“It really focuses, sharpens the mind when you have to play New Zealand first up,” he said. “And I like that. The boys like that, too. You’ve felt the intensity rise this week. The tension. The aggression in training.

“I couldn’t really have asked for much more considering some of the things that are put in front of us. ”I feel like we’ve had a really positive preparation with a lot of commitment from our players.”

Both teams want a strong start to the season to build confidence and momentum for the World Cup.

“This is a big test for us and we’re not thinking too far beyond that,” Foster said. “We (haven’t) had our first test of the year away from home for a long time so it’s been a challenge for us, particularly coming to Mendoza and a confident Argentinian team.

“We’ve still got a bit of building to be where we need to be for the World Cup. This is where the Rugby Championship becomes important and what’s critical is that we build our way through this tournament so that we are adapting and growing.”