New Zealand’s All Blacks ground down the Pumas of Argentina in a fiercely contested Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
The Pumas had never played the All Blacks at Eden Park before and they showed just how up for the challenge they were in a match where neither side would take the first backwards step. The contest in the forwards was huge and honours at the end were even for the packs, as waves of All Black attacks were held up close to the ruck and slow ball was delivered for their dangerous outside backs. The Pumas also controlled the ball fairly well and did not allow the All Blacks to counter-attack on turnover ball, which is when they are most dangerous. The All Blacks scrum held up well against the Pumas renowned scrummaging ability and they stole four lineouts whilst winning all their own; good signs for the contest against Australia next week, where the forward battle will be crucial.
Colin Slade, playing at fly-half for New Zealand in the absence of Dan Carter, was under pressure in this match and it looked as though he felt it. In the seventh minute he dropped a pass under little pressure from the opposition and as the Pumas booted it through, only a desperate chase back from Conrad Smith stopped the Argentineans from opening the scoring. After Pumas fly-half Santi Fernandez missed a drop goal attempt, the All Blacks worked their way back downfield, and Piri Weepu kicked a penalty for New Zealand to open the scoring. The All Blacks then had a try disallowed after 18 minutes of play as Kieran Read put a foot into touch just before he placed the ball over the try line.
The All Blacks won a further penalty for a 6-0 lead; but in the build-up Slade was injured in a tackle. Although he played on, he never looked comfortable and was replaced soon after by Aaron Cruden. And just on the 30 minute mark of the game, Argentina struck back with a try to take a 7-6 lead. Number 8 Leonardo Senatore made a tremendous break from a ruck, taking two steps across-field and then wrong-footing his marker to burst through the middle of the park. The Argentinean team kept the ball alive, and flanker Julio Farias Cabello crashed over in the corner. Captain Felipe Contepomi added the conversion, and the Pumas were ahead. In the final ten minutes of the first half, New Zealand struck back twice through the boot of Piri Weepu, who kept his nerve superbly on the night. At half time, the All Blacks lead by 12-7, but certainly not out of reach of the Pumas.
Pumas centre Marcelo Bosch opened the second half scoring with a huge penalty from all of 55 metres with the angle, pulling New Zealand back again to 12-10. The All Blacks responded with two further penalties from Weepu as the Pumas scrambling defence kept their try line clear, but in the second of those infringements Pumas scrumhalf Nicolas Vergallo was shown a yellow card for persistent fouling. At 18-10 with a man advantage, the All Blacks could breathe easier.
In the 67th minute, with Vergallo just back on the field, quick hands from Jerome Kaino found the extra man on the overlap as the Argentine defender went for the intercept and missed. Kieran Read was the beneficiary as he scored the try that made New Zealand feel safe. Weepu made his only miss of the night from the kicking tee, but at 23-10 and with the feeling the All Blacks were finally grinding them down, it was a long way back for the Pumas.
Weepu kicked one more excellent penalty from 40m before Brad Thorn rounded out the scoring for the All Blacks. It was Sonny Bill Williams who beat a man and made the initial break down his left wing; the ball came back right and Cory Jane, dangerous all night, slipped his marker and managed to toss a blind pass back over his head just before being bundled into touch. Kieran Read was on hand to pick it up, and draw the last Argentine defender, giving Brad Thorn an unopposed run to the line. Cruden added the extras to give New Zealand’s victory some gloss.
While Argentina will be far from happy with the final score line, they can take pride in a strong performance that limited the All Blacks play. Leonardo Senatore made several strong breaks and showed that the Pumas can still be dangerous without Juan Fernandez Lobbe. New Zealand looked as if they had some trouble moving up through the gears without Dan Carter in the driver’s seat; but replacement fly-half Aaron Cruden showed some excellent long, flat passing and good creativity. Piri Weepu took over as the director of the All Blacks play as well as the goal kicker, and he did excellently at both roles, bossing the game for the New Zealanders. Fullback Mils Muliaina, in his 100th match for the All Blacks, injured his shoulder and did not reappear after half time; the extent of his injury is not yet known, but Israel Dagg could be called back into the team for next weekend.
New Zealand will now take on Australia in the second semi-final at Eden Park next weekend. It promises to be a fascinating match; New Zealand convincingly beat Australia in their first tri-nations clash on the same ground earlier this year, but the Wallabies bounced back at home and defeated the All Blacks with an outstanding performance in Australia, to take the tri-nations title. A running battle between Wallaby fly-half Quade Cooper and New Zealand national treasure Richie McCaw has seen Cooper branded public enemy number one, and booed in every match so far; certainly the Eden Park crowd will not show him any favour next weekend. Both teams play an exciting brand of running rugby that has seen them score five tries each in their two matches this year; can the semi-final produce another such spectacle?