ALL BLACKS 24 ARGENTINA 20 - By WYNNE GRAY
Rugby is an amateur sport in Argentina but it was the All Blacks who looked like part-time players yesterday in their fortunate victory in Buenos Aires.
Two moments of brilliance and Andrew Mehrtens' goalkicking allowed the All Blacks to overcome a Pumas side who were far more precise and controlled than their illustrious opponents.
The boisterous home crowd, with soccer legend Diego Maradona as conductor, were eventually silenced when No 8 Scott Robertson plunged over in the corner for the All Blacks to regain the lead and play out a frantic seven minutes of injury time.
In the dramatic last stanzas, the Pumas held a slim 20-17 advantage and had just seen Mehrtens hit the post with a 49m penalty.
Back down the other end of the field, the All Blacks infringed at a ruck and Felipe Contepomi, who had been so neat throughout the test, missed from 22m and in front.
The crowd were stunned, the Pumas looked uneasily at one another and the All Blacks cranked up their attack.
"We thought we had a chance then," Robertson said.
Contepomi made another fatal error within minutes. He sliced a clearing kick, Mehrtens swung a long pass to Ben Blair and the new fullback had space to attack.
He beat two defenders with his sidestep, slowed at the final tackler and found Robertson with one of the few decent passes the All Blacks threw all game.
"It felt like someone had put a spell on us during the game," said Robertson. "We were still in it but they had fed off our mistakes."
There were enough of those to cause the Pumas indigestion.
Skipper Lisandro Arbizu scored two tries when first Mark Robinson then Doug Howlett failed to clear the ball from the in-goal area.
The Pumas applied most of the pressure through their strong, driving pack, darting runs from Agustin Pichot and bombs from Contepomi and Ignacio Corleto.
The All Blacks were guilty of not getting back in support, and even their chasing game was lacklustre. Too often the impressive Richard McCaw seemed to be playing the Argentines on his own.
Instead of being patient, the All Blacks tried to create attacks from almost every play and their handling and passing were mediocre.
"We probably did not play test football," Robertson agreed.
"It was like the NPC, trying to run from anywhere. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves."
The match was like a poor copy of previous weeks.
Against Ireland, the All Blacks dithered for the first half, against Scotland they stumbled for 70 minutes before finding the hammer blows, and yesterday they got to the finish with nothing to spare.
"We got away with it and that's about it," Blair said.
"It was a tough cauldron - we were punished for our mistakes and did not play well."
While Robertson's try saved the test, Lomu's midway through the first spell kept the All Blacks in it. He shrugged off four tacklers in an imperious and all-too-rare highlight.
Even coach John Mitchell, who has done his best to be upbeat about results on tour, could find little to enthuse about.
He did point out the number of quality players left at home because of injury or form, and the issues of blooding new troops and changing time zones.
Mitchell admired the All Blacks' character and had faith that victory would come because they were able to break the Pumas' line.
"We were very fortunate to get out of it," Mitchell said. "I would be the first to admit relief about this test match.
"The quality was not what we wanted to achieve but we have got to be content we got out of it."
It was not as if the Pumas sprang surprises. Their game plan does not vary so the All Blacks' worry would have to be their high level of fundamental errors and their inability to counter with any great purpose.
Certainly they were weary, and that has also told on the Wallabies and Springboks late in the year.
But the All Blacks did win, and many other sides in the last decade have lost the big games of their Northern Hemisphere trips.