Patrick McKendry is a rugby and boxing writer for the Herald.

Rugby: The day the Pumas almost beat the All Blacks

Chris Jack (L) watches wounded Pumas captain Lisandro Arbizu leave the field following the rugby test against the Pumas at the River Plate Stadium. Photo / Getty Images
Chris Jack (L) watches wounded Pumas captain Lisandro Arbizu leave the field following the rugby test against the Pumas at the River Plate Stadium. Photo / Getty Images

The year was 2001. The scene was the extravagantly-named Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti in Buenos Aires, also known as the River Plate Stadium.

The result - well, it looked like history was in the making until the final minute. The Pumas have never beaten the All Blacks but had Argentina first-five Felipe Contepomi found touch with one of the final kicks of the match, the noise - which reached a fever pitch before kickoff when the country's football World Cup hero Diego Maradona encouraged the crowd of 70,000 to new levels of excitement - might have echoed around the city.

The match ended in a 24-20 victory for an All Blacks team who had travelled to Argentina following their four-match November tour of Ireland and Scotland. They had played a test in each country, plus games against Ireland A and Scotland A. The overwhelming feeling for them following their final test of the year was relief.

Sixteen years previously, the All Blacks had drawn 21-21 with the Pumas in Buenos Aires, so they would have been aware of the potential for an upset.

Accordingly, coach John Mitchell had named a strong team, including wings Jonah Lomu and Doug Howlett, first-five Andrew Merhtens, a midfield of Aaron Mauger and Tana Umaga, and a young loose forward named Richie McCaw, who was allegedly headbutted by halfback Agustin Pichot, an act which saw the now World Rugby vice-chairman sin-binned.

"The atmosphere was electric," said prop Dave Hewett, who was making his first test start for the All Blacks. "They rolled [football legend Diego] Maradona out just before kickoff, which whipped the crowd into a frenzy and I remember the intense supporting nature of the crowd. It was a bit of a cauldron, that's for sure.

"They scrummage similarly to the French and that's possibly because they've got a lot of guys in that Top-14 league and have done for a number of years. They're big men, they pride themselves on their scrummaging. It was a difficult day at the office.

"In one breakdown, I felt the family jewels being grabbed and I expected it to be a prop or a lock or at least a tight forward. I grabbed his hand and when I looked at his number, I saw it was a wing," Hewett said.

The All Blacks hero that early December night was loose forward Scott Robertson, a man who found himself in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a miscued kick to break the hearts of the Argentines. Trailing by three points with the seconds ticking down, Contepomi's clearance went straight to Mehrtens, who found the then 22-year-old Ben Blair, making his first test start, and the little fullback ripped through the middle of the defence.

"I took the lineout ball and, as I was running along, one of the Argentine guys tripped over me and I just stood up and stayed there," Robertson said. "I ended up standing outside Ben Blair. They chased across, we held our width, and Benny gave me a great ball and the rest is history. It was great."

- Herald on Sunday

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