After five years of lobbying, Argentina finally made their bow in rugby’s premier annual international tournament on Saturday when they took on South Africa in the newly expanded Rugby Championship.
Whilst no-one was expecting an Argentine win on a cold afternoon in Cape Town, hopes were high that the Pumas could show themselves to be competitive in such exalted company. And so it proved as they put up a creditable performance in holding the Springboks to a modest 27-6 victory in front of 38,843 at Newlands.
It was South Africa who drew first blood with an early penalty from Morné Steyn, but the Pumas equalised when Juan Martín Hernández slotted home a penalty on 14 minutes when Zane Kirchner was penalised for holding onto the ball in the tackle after Hernández’ clever kick towards the South African 22.
Parity was short-lived as the Springboks scored the opening try of the game four minutes later as Kirchner atoned for his earlier error by crossing over after Argentina had conceded a five-metre scrum and free-kick, with Steyn adding the extra two points from the conversion.
Steyn added a further penalty in the 24th minute, to give South Africa a 13-3 lead, as repeated Argentine infringements around the breakdown continually handed their hosts the advantage, with referee Steve Evans threatening to send the next offender to the sin bin.
Three minutes later the Springboks further extended their lead after Marcell Coetzee peeled off the back of a rolling maul to score a try in the right-hand corner which was converted once more by Steyn to put the home side 20-3 ahead.
Within two minutes Hernández reduced the arrears after the Springboks were penalised for offside, and with no further scoring the sides went into the half-time break with the score at 20-6.
After a stern lecture from coach, Santiago Phelan, the Pumas came out for the second half like men possessed, attacking the South Africans from the off. In the opening six minutes their pressure resulted in the Springboks conceding three penalties, and an opportunity to narrow the deficit.
Unfortunately for Argentina the chance was spurned as first Marcelo Bosch from 40 metres out, and then Hernández with two more eminently kickable penalties failed to bisect the posts with their kicks.
South Africa made the most of their reprieve to score a third try in the 56th minute when Bryan Habana collected Steyn’s perfectly flighted cross-field kick to score his 41st international try.
The rest of the match became an attritional stalemate as the Argentine defence, brilliantly marshalled by captain, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe successfully kept the Springboks at bay as they pressed for a fourth try which would have earned them a crucial bonus point.
Meanwhile, the South African rear-guard was equally effective as the Pumas were frustrated in their attempts to set free their pacy back-line of Horacio Agulla, Bosch, Gonzalo Camacho and Lucas González Amorosino.
In the final analysis the final score of 27-6 represented a promising debut in the Rugby Championship, as Argentina were by no means disgraced and showed that they could compete with the best in the world. In order to now progress Santiago Phelan and his men must work on cutting out the penalty infringements at the breakdown and capitalising on scoring opportunities when in possession in the opposition half.
As Phelan said after the match: “In rugby at the top level, each mistake is paid for in points. I am happy with the attitude of the players. They did some things well, and there are some aspects to work on.”
The show now moves on to Mendoza next Saturday where the Pumas will play the return match against South Africa before crossing the Pacific in September to take on world champions New Zealand and Australia, finally finishing in Argentina when New Zealand come to La Plata and Australia visit Rosario. It promises to be an exciting spring for Argentine rugby fans.