For a moment it seemed New Zealand were heading down the same rocky road as South Africa. Down to 13 men and trailing by four points to a physical Pumas side with their tails up, the situation was as dark as the world champions’ new deathly black uniform. A distinct whiff of Brighton hung in the air.
On this occasion the All Blacks survived but here, once again, was evidence that this World Cup will be relentlessly competitive. New Zealand, who lost their captain, Richie McCaw, and their midfield totem Conrad Smith to the sin-bin in the first-half, did improve latterly as their opponents tired but it took all the brilliance of Aaron Smith and the line-breaking skill of Sonny Bill Williams to restore order. Their rivals will look at their occasional scrum problems, in particular, and wonder what might unfold later in the tournament.
Argentina, for their part, will be kicking themselves. In 21 attempts they had never toppled New Zealand yet, for an hour, it looked perfectly possible. Had they sustained their initial forward impetus, they might even have knocked Japan off the front pages. Instead a 66th-minute try from replacement Sam Cane gave the All Blacks just enough breathing space and Steve Hansen’s worst nightmare was averted.
There had seemed little danger initially. Argentina could do nothing right and were hit with three Dan Carter penalties and a yellow card for obstruction by flanker Pablo Matera. The Pumas are a more confident side these days, though, and took the necessary steps to appease the referee, Wayne Barnes. Slowly but surely, the game’s momentum started to shift and Argentina’s physicality was deservedly rewarded when 20-year-old Guido Petti crashed over. Unfortunately he took a bang on the head in doing so, removing him from the rest of the contest. A heartbreaker, you could say.
With Matera back on, however, Argentina had fresh reason to believe. Nicolás Sánchez, the laziest striker of a dead ball in rugby, chipped over the conversion before New Zealand struck the least expected of icebergs. McCaw had been sent to the sin-bin precisely twice in his previous 142 Tests but his trip on Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe clearly deserved yellow.
The Wembley crowd, containing a generous sprinkling of noisy Argentinian supporters, reacted as if they had just seen Lionel Messi chopped down on the edge of the box. McCaw later called it “a dumb mistake”, but Hansen, for one, was unimpressed by the boos which rang around the ground.
The pressure on New Zealand duly increased when Conrad Smith was also correctly binned for coming in from the side and Sánchez extended his side’s lead to 13-9. A 13-man New Zealand team has been sighted before but normally only in rugby league. Cleverly they persuaded Matera to give away a soft penalty to reduce the half-time arrears to a point but, even with McCaw back, the third quarter represented Argentina’s big chance.
The length of Juan Martín Hernández’s kicking out of hand and the Pumas’ excellence beneath the high ball was causing the All Blacks particular problems, as was the industrious, hard-carrying Agustín Creevy. In Smith’s absence plenty of defensive scrambling was also required and an offside call against Owen Franks gave Sánchez another chance to demonstrate his soft shoe accuracy.
There was also a slight hint of desperation about Hansen’s decision to throw on Williams just five minutes after the break in place of Ma’a Nonu, followed by even more Kiwi head-clutching when Williams broke clear close to the Pumas’ line and offloaded to Nehe Milner-Skudder, only for the winger to knock it on. New Zealand were going to have to find another way. Milner-Skudder was summarily hauled off and replaced by Beauden Barritt, more of a tactical presence. It was not until the 57th minute, even so, that a glimmer of light finally materialised for Hansen – his best player, Aaron Smith, sneaking through a rare gap finally in the unyielding Puma defence. Even that score came with some debate attached, Barnes declining to penalise a high tackle by Dane Coles with advantage being played.
The All Blacks might have pulled away had two further try opportunities not been butchered, first when Read was unable to find McCaw and again when Cane spilt Aaron Smith’s final pass. Ultimately it did not matter, Cane making amends shortly afterwards to settle his country’s jangling nerves. “There’s no doubt we were rusty but I thought our boys showed a lot of fortitude,” said Hansen. “We’ll improve from that.” The attendance of 89,019 was the biggest ever to attend aRugby World Cup match, topping the 82,957 who watched the 2003 final in Sydney.
New Zealand B Smith; Milner-Skudder (Barrett, 49), C Smith, Nonu (Williams, 45), Savea; Carter, A Smith (Perenara, 69); Woodcock (Crockett, 45), Coles (Mealamu, 69), O Franks (Faumuina, 50), Retallick (Vito, 71), Whitelock, Kaino (Cane, 65), McCaw (capt), Read.
Tries A Smith, Cane. Cons Carter 2. Pens Carter 4.
Sin-bin McCaw 30, C Smith 37.
Argentina Tuculet (Amorosino, 70); Cordero, Bosch, Hernández, Imhoff; Sánchez (De La Fuente, 69), Cubelli (Landajo, 62); Ayerza, Creevy (capt; Noguera, 70), Chaparro (Herrera, 53), Petti (Galarza, 21), Lavanni, Matera (Leguizamon, 58), Fernández Lobbe, Senatore (Montoya, 65).
Sin-bin Matera 10.
Try Petti. Con Sánchez. Pens Sánchez 3.
Referee W Barnes (Eng). Attendance 89,019.