Scotland steeled for testing time in Tucuman

THE eyes of the wider sporting world may be focused on South Africa rather than South America but this afternoon's match in Tucuman (7.45pm BST) is still a sell-out with 35,000 Puma fans expected to uphold the stadium's well-earned reputation as one of the most hostile environments in which to play test match rugby.

• Andy Robinson knows Scotland face a tough task in today's first Test as they go up against an experienced Argentina side and a hostile 35,000 sell-out crowd in Tucuman. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Surprisingly it's the first international match held in Tucuman since 2004 and the locals aren't going to let an opportunity to celebrate their other national sport go to waste.

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Andy Robinson was sporting a wide grin on his face at yesterday's press conference. The anticipation of an upcoming international seems to add a little lustre to the Englishman who had a "Readybrek" glow about him. The coach quickly acknowledged the size of the task looming ahead.

"We've got a tough task against Argentina. What's pleasing is that there can be no excuses from them because they've brought their number one team to play against us. And playing in Tucuman is going to be very tough. Ultimately the battle will be up front, the forward battle. If (Felipe] Contepomi has a platform to play off then he can be the world's best number ten. If he hasn't he can be put under pressure."

Undoubtedly the Argentinean skipper will play a key role but, for all his excellence, he can be got at. When things go against him, Contepomi shows flashes of petulance, two years ago in Buenos Aires he was yellow carded for fighting Euan Murray of all people. Flanker John Barclay will be asked to ruffle the fly-half's feathers at every opportunity, legally or otherwise, and every Scot in the squad will be keen to test his suspect knee.

Robinson spoke of the momentum, rhythm and pace that Argentina employ when they get onto the front foot with the crowd baying in their ears. When that happens it is a sight to behold and almost unstoppable but stop it Scotland must. The visitors have to dominate the lineout, something they failed to manage in November when a lost throw by Scotland led to the field position and pressure that enabled the Pumas to grab that last gasp drop-goal. Dominating the sidelines is vital because the Scots expect to come under the cosh at the set scrum. Argentina can call upon oodles of experience. Rodrigo Roncero, Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo have an astonishing 43 years of international experience behind them whereas two of Scotland's three front line troops, Moray Low and Ross Ford, are probably still five years away from reaching their peak.

"They have got six forwards that were involved from the World Cup in 2007, very much a part of that success," Robinson noted. "Their front row are hugely experienced and that will be a growing area for us to test ourselves. There will be a lot of learning taking place every time there is a scrum," and Robinson was not talking about the Argentinean trio who have probably forgotten more about the dark arts of mano a mano scrummaging than the Scots have ever been taught.

"Part of the reason for bringing (scrum coach] Massimo Cuttitta over was some technical work we are doing with the front row as well as understanding how to absorb pressure and understanding some of the tricks they will be facing."

Robinson admitted his side had done a scrum session every day since arriving in the country one week ago but he also conceded that the Pumas had an experience that only time can buy.

If Scotland can win some sort of parity at the set piece, edging the lineouts even if they struggle in the scrums, then the match will probably turn on what happens at the breakdown where English referee Dave Pearson will have a big say on events. Few sides are as accomplished at making a dog's dinner of that aspect of the game as the Pumas and Pearson will need to be strict on the new interpretations if Argentina are not to thwart the Scots multi-phase game.

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He fell down in Rome. It was Pearson who failed to send Italian flanker Josh Sole to the sin bin just before half-time despite a couple of warnings followed by some blatant cheating from the big blindside five metres from his own try line. If the English whistler extends the same lenience to the Pumas, it is going to be a very long afternoon for the visitors. "At times they are legal when they get the first man on the ball," Robinson cautioned with the emphasis on what he left unsaid, "but yes, it will take strong refereeing. It is still in our control what we do."

His side have to walk a thin line, keeping the tempo high, counter-attacking when the Pumas' kicking game invites it, while remaining disciplined enough not to concede penalties and accurate enough not to cough up turnovers in dangerous parts of the field. It's a huge ask.

While the Wallabies and the All Blacks can slice open the meanest defence with a moment of brilliance, the Pumas adopt the same approach to test match rugby as the Springboks do. They kick the ball deep, they chase hard and they attempt to pressure the opposition into making mistakes. It's classic World Cup rugby which is one of the reasons that Argentina did so well in France. They turn the screw and, just when the opposition are squealing, they ratchet up the pressure even more. It isn't always the most entertaining stuff to watch but at its best it can be wonderfully effective.

It would be nice to think that today's test will turn on a slice of inspiration or a moment of magic but both sides are a little short on inspiration especially with Juan Martin Hernandez missing from the Pumas line-up. The prosaic truth is the match will probably hinge on who can get the right turnover/penalty balance at the breakdown; they are simply two sides of the same coin.

Of course Scotland can win this game but to do so Robinson's team will probably need to play better than we have witnessed so far, or the Pumas will need to play a lot worse.