Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Last-gasp win denied Pumas place in history

Coach John Mitchell hugs Scott Robertson after the No8 scored New Zealand's last-minute winning try. Photo / Getty Images
Coach John Mitchell hugs Scott Robertson after the No8 scored New Zealand's last-minute winning try. 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."

- NZ Herald

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