Buenos Aires, Argentina (AP) — New Zealand began the on-field buildup to its defense of the World Cup with a scratch combination and a scratchy 20-16 win over Argentina in the Rugby Championship on Saturday.
Missing regular captains Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock, New Zealand lacked leadership, focus, and discipline and was fully stretched to hold out a Pumas team seeking its first ever win over the All Blacks.
New Zealand clung to its brittle four-point lead for more than 30 minutes, after a try to fullback Emiliano Boffelli brought Argentina in sight of an historic victory.
The Pumas spent almost all of the second half camped in All Blacks territory but couldn’t make the final breakthrough.
They ended the match hot on attack, with two late penalties which gave them the opportunity to score from lineout drives close to the New Zealand line. The All Blacks held on, just, turning over possession at the second opporuntity to end the game.
New Zealand owed its victory to first-half tries by center Ngani Laumape and lock Brodie Retallick, who ran almost 50 meters from an intercept just before halftime.
“It was the definition of a test match,” New Zealand captain Sam Cane said. “Man, that was a real ding-dong battle.
“They came out firing. I thought our discipline was pretty average at times. Massive credit to Argentina, they put us under pressure from the first whistle right up to the last second of the game.”
New Zealand imposed some pressure on itself when coach Steve Hansen selected a patchwork combination of out-of-form veterans and untested youngsters. New combinations failed to gel and the All Blacks’ usually sharp attacking game lacked any edge.
Flyhalf Beauden Barrett, who kicked two conversions and two penalties to pass 600 points in tests, made a number of trademark line breaks. But he lacked support from newcomers who were not on the same page tactically.
Argentina made most of the running in the match, rattling the All Blacks with a high-tempo and physical beginning. They threw themselves into tackles and into breakdowns and forced an almost uncountable number of mistakes from the All Blacks, who also conceded a large number of penalties.
Penalties to Nicolas Sanchez and Emiliano Boffelli, the second from halfway, gave the Pumas an early 6-0 lead before New Zealand hit the lead for the first time in the 18th minute with Laumape’s try.
Winger Ramiro Moyano was caught in possession close to his line, New Zealand won the ball, and scrumhalf Aaron Smith put Laumape in a tight gap with his flat pass.
The lead changed hands twice with penalties by Sanchez and Barrett before Retallick grabbed a loose pass by Sanchez and rushed from halfway to score, giving New Zealand a 20-9 lead at halftime.
The Pumas appeared to be feeling the pace of the match at that stage but found their second wind and continued to attack strongly in the second half. It was clear they couldn’t win on penatlies, so began to play with more scope.
In the 47th minute, Sanchez put in an up-and-under from close range, almost in rugby league style, and Boffelli rose above his opposite Ben Smith to win the ball and touch down.
The score remained 20-16 through the remainder of the match, despite the efforts of both teams to create a decisive score. Argentina seemed more likely to break through, with the bulk of territory and possession, but their efforts were thwarted by errors and a sound All Blacks defense.
“I thought we put in a strong effort, we always do that,” Pumas captain Pablo Matera said. “But it was not enough so we have to keep working hard.
“We’re really improving as a team but it was not enough. We were four points short so we have to continue working hard and we’ll get there.”