By Liam Napier in Paris
All Blacks 44 Argentina 6
From historic lows to the cusp of the pinnacle prize, Ian Foster’s All Blacks stand on the precipice of completing their great redemption tale.
What a defiant story that would be.
In August last year Foster’s All Blacks slumped to six losses from eight tests. They were widely ridiculed and, yet, their seemingly perfectly timed transformation earns them the chance to flip the bird to the doubters and become the first team in history to claim four Webb Ellis Cup titles.
The All Blacks will contest their first World Cup final in eight years – ironically the only time they previously captured the global crown on foreign soil – against England or South Africa next weekend in Paris after dismantling Michael Cheika’s bumbling Pumas at Stade de France.
Lingering nerves from the All Blacks’ 2019 semifinal defeat were never allowed to fester.
With another show of force from their forward pack the All Blacks squeezed the life from the Pumas through their maul and scrum, and then clinically put the Argentinians away with Will Jordan and Shannon Frizell shining brightly.
Not since 2007 had a team scored 30 or more points in a semifinal. The All Blacks did that with ease, scoring seven-tries-to-none in the process – the third of Will Jordan’s hat-trick that featured a blistering break from Ardie Savea’s inside ball, a chip and finish the pick of the bunch.
Such was their utter dominance the All Blacks opted to play the final five minutes with 14 men - and Foster had the luxury of injecting his bench early in the second half to preserve tiring bodies for next week’s finale.
Descending from the euphoric high of last week’s epic quarter-final victory over Ireland, the All Blacks faced the difficult task of attempting to replicate those elite efforts.
Against the Pumas, though, they didn’t have to get anywhere near peak performance.
The margin of victory suggests they got close but this All Blacks team has levels in them yet. And they will need it.
This week the script flipped for the All Blacks. From underdogs to unbackable favourites, they handled that mantle with aplomb.
Anyone who watched last week’s quarter-finals could tell you the All Blacks should be far superior to the Pumas.
Everyone knows World Cup organisers horrifically botched their pinnacle event by staging the draw years too soon. The lopsided nature of the tournament promoted Argentina to the semifinals, while Ireland and France’s compelling qualities exited last week. The folly of that dud scheduling was further exposed on this grand stage. The Pumas were never in the All Blacks league. Their third World Cup semifinal ranks as their worst.
The sad part is this World Cup semifinal fell decidedly flat in patches. Pockets of Pumas fans chanted pre-match but by the second half, with the contest dead, the crowd was reduced to sparking a Mexican wave with half-an-hour to go.
The All Blacks job isn’t to generate atmosphere, though. They had one task – win by any means necessary.
While the Pumas never threatened, the All Blacks were far from perfect. They didn’t need to be either. Third gear was more than enough.
Next week Scott Barrett’s unnecessary second half yellow card and the odd handling error – after making one against Ireland – could prove costly.
But next week will be an entirely different beast. The All Blacks won’t need to manufacture and edge. The ultimate prize now sits within reach.
While Jordan claimed three tries on the other edge Mark Tele’a repaid the faith after being the reinstated to start after his curfew breach.
As he has all season Tele’a constantly went looking for work. At the end of the first half he demonstrated his elusive qualities to somehow run through the heart of the Pumas pack and shrug off five defenders. One phase later, Frizell strolled in at the corner to hand the All Blacks a 20-6 halftime lead after barely breaking a sweat.
Up front the All Blacks pack succeeded in bullying and bossing the Pumas. Frizell and Scott Barrett led the charge with ball in hand. Savea was highly involved with ball in hand. Rieko Ioane sparked one counter attack from inside the All Blacks 22 after a Tele’a turnover.
Jordan and Jordie Barrett finished well-taken tries but Argentina’s ill-discipline – eight penalties in the first half alone – gifted the All Blacks easy outs.
With the All Blacks in total control Aaron Smith put the game beyond doubt immediately after the break with a typically snipping burst.
Whether it’s South Africa or England next week, the All Blacks will be ready.
Their redemption fate, their final Houdini act, rests in their hands.
All Blacks 44 Will Jordan 3, Jordie Barrett, Shannon Frizell 2, Aaron Smith tries, Richie Mo’unga con 2, pen
Pumas 6 Emiliano Boffelli pen 2
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Liam Napier has been a sports journalist since 2010, and his work has taken him to World Cups in rugby, netball and cricket, boxing world title fights and Commonwealth Games.