All Blacks skipper Sam Cane Friday said his team has an extra “edge” about them heading into their crunch clash with Argentina, driven by the “horrible” feeling of two straight defeats.
New Zealand are in the rare situation of trying to avoid three losses in a row, a fate they have not suffered since 1998.
Standing in their way at Newcastle, north of Sydney, on Saturday is an Argentinian side that not only beat them 25-15 in the Tri Nations this month, but followed it up with a battling draw against Australia.
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Cane said suffering two defeats in a row — they also lost to the Wallabies — and a backlash from their notoriously demanding fans had left them rattled.
“Everyone in the squad is hurting and there is an opportunity to try and right some wrongs and put some pride back in the All Blacks jersey,” he said.
“There’s a slightly different mood. The easiest way to explain it is that there is a bit of an edge, almost a grumpiness throughout the week.
“Sometimes (in training) it’s good to have a bit of fun, but we are so focused and have just wanted to get the most out of every training session this week to give ourselves the best chance of playing well.”
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Much of the flak from the back-to-back defeats has been directed at coach Ian Foster, although Cane has also come under scrutiny for his leadership skills.
He insisted his head had been “in a good place” this week with “tremendous support” from his teammates.
“We are very focused on what we can control and in trying to get a good performance and sort of blocking out any outside noise and just worrying about what is important,” he said.
“We’re embracing the pressure that we’re under as a team but using that in a really positive way to drive us.
“The last two games, the feeling has just been horrible and there would be nothing worse than feeling that again leading into the (southern hemisphere) summer, so we’re just driven to try and put a performance together that we’re proud of.”
Foster has reshuffled his forwards to better tackle the physicality of Argentina, bringing in prop Nepo Laulala for Tyrel Lomax, lock Scott Barrett ahead of Patrick Tuipulotu and loose forward Akira Ioane instead of Shannon Frizell.
Otherwise, the team is unchanged from the one that crashed to Argentina a fortnight ago.
In contrast, Pumas coach Mario Ledesma has replaced 10 of his run-on side after two bruising games in as many weeks as they prepare to play in honour of deceased football legend and compatriot Diego Maradona.
Cane said he expected Argentina to bring the same aggression and flair in the re-match, and urged his team to show similar attributes.
“Definitely a wee bit more passion,” he said.
“We’re coming up against one of the most passionate sides in world rugby, but also just being physical, clinical and smart.”