Under-rated Pumas a lurking danger to Scots

WITH six days to go before they play the fourth-best team on the planet, Scotland need to find the kind of acceleration usually associated with luxury sports cars. They may not literally have to learn how to go from nought to 90 in a matter of seconds, but they will have to get up to speed with an extraordinary rapidity if they are to defeat Argentina and reach the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup for the first time in 16 years.

The Pumas finished top of Pool D by beating Ireland 30-15 yesterday, and now meet Scotland, the Pool C runners-up, in the Stade de France on Sunday. Their victory will have come as a relief to many Scottish rugby supporters, as there has been a growing presumption they would not be as tough a test as the host nation.

That presumption, however, probably owes more to wishful thinking than it does to facts, and there is certainly nothing to seriously suggest Argentina will be anything other than extremely dangerous opponents. Even the initially plausible notion that the French would be a more difficult proposition as they would be playing at home hardly stands up to much examination: after all, it is only a matter of weeks since Argentina showed themselves to be so at home in the Stade de France that they beat the French there.

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That 17-12 win was in the opening game of the World Cup. In their next two matches - against Georgia and Namibia - Argentina conceded just six points. The two tries they conceded yesterday, against an Ireland side who knew they were out of the competition if they did not score four, and therefore attacked frenziedly, were their first such losses of the tournament.

Prefer to take a longer view of the matter rather than merely inspect recent form? You won't find much solace there either. Argentina have defeated Scotland in five of the last six occasions on which the two countries have met, and have not been beaten since 1990.

And they have prospered in adversity. Alone of the world top ten, they do not play in either the Six Nations or the Tri-Nations, and thus lack the advantages which can come from regular competitive matches in those tournaments.

Despite that, they have progressed steadily. They still base their play on a formidable pack, but it is now a dynamic unit rather than the one which used to trundle around the park - witness the speed at which possession was turned over against Ireland. And the backs aren't bad either.

In brief, short of the Pumas suffering a complete off-day, Scotland will need to be at their best to defeat them and reach the last four. But when were Scotland last at their best? That, surely, is the real problem facing Frank Hadden and his assistant coaches as they prepare for Sunday. Apart from the desperately tense scrap against the Italians, the first-choice Scottish line-up has not had a truly competitive run-out since the Six Nations, in which they ended up with the Wooden Spoon.

After two warm-up games at Murrayfield, the World Cup opener against Portugal provided a modest test. Romania were better organised and more physically demanding opponents, but Scotland saw them off in style, winning 42-0 with three converted tries in each half. This was an especially impressive result given that the Italians had only won by six points against the eastern European team, and it augured well for Saturday's pool showdown.

But, while some players may have benefited from being rested against the All Blacks, others looked like they could have done with an extra match between the Romanian and Italian tests instead of resting for the ten days between them.

The TV commentator Stuart Barnes, for one, said he thought the back row could have done with playing against New Zealand in order to get that bit sharper. They now somehow need to acquire that sharpness in training this week rather than in game situations, which is no easy matter.

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Some of those who agreed wholeheartedly with Hadden's selection of a second string against the All Blacks have suggested that, in such a physically arduous competition as the World Cup, it is necessary to keep your powder dry for the latter stages. But such talk is, by and large misplaced; sportsmen are not mechanical devices, and cannot simply go from inactivity to explosiveness. They need to graduate, step by step, from one level to the next before reaching the top of their game.

Too many intense matches in too short a period do carry the danger of burn-out. But, if you play too few, the risk is you fail to ignite in the first place. That is the risk Scotland must somehow annul this week to stand any real chance of getting the better of Argentina.

Past meetings

SCOTLAND have not defeated Argentina since the teams' first meeting at Murrayfield in 1990:

• Scotland 49 Argentina 3, Murrayfield, 10 November 1990

• Argentina 16 Scotland 15, Buenos Aires, 4 June 1994

• Argentina 19 Scotland 17, Buenos Aires, 11 June 1994

• Scotland 22 Argentina 31 Murrayfield, 21 August 1999

• Scotland 16 Argentina 25 Murrayfield, 18 November 2001

• Scotland 19 Argentina 23 Murrayfield, 12 November 2005

• Scotland's totals:

Played 6

Won 1

Lost 5

Points for 138

Points against 117