WORRYING TIMES: Richie McCaw was sin-binned for a cynical trip in the All Blacks' hard-fought win
LONDON, 20 Sept - It was far from straightforward. Captain Richie McCaw was booed after being sin-binned and for just a fleeting moment there was even the tiniest suspicion that another Rugby World Cup sensation could be on the cards before New Zealand finally flexed their muscles to launch their defence with a 26-16 win over Argentina.
With this thunderous, if mistake-riddled, game about to enter its final quarter, Argentina were still leading 16-12 after a tremendous team performance full of spirit, skill and defensive ferocity to match their passionate sky blue support amid the record World Cup crowd of 89,019.
Sensing another miracle
The rusty, ill-disciplined All Blacks had been rocked, at one point having being reduced to 13 men just before half-time and with their totem McCaw having been despatched to the bench for what English referee Wayne Barnes - no stranger to World Cup controversy with the All Blacks - and the crowd felt was a cynical trip on Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.
Surely, there couldn’t be a second seismic result in the space of 24 hours after Japan’s miraculous 34-32 win over the Springboks?
Not with these remarkable champions, though. Not with a team who have lost just three of their last 48 matches.
After butchering a couple of golden chances to retake the lead, the real All Blacks finally re-emerged in the last 20 minutes with two tries from Aaron Smith and Sam Cane allied to the ever-secure boot of Dan Carter, who landed all his six kicks at goal, seeing them home on the opening leg of their quest to become the first team to successfully defend the title.
It all left New Zealand coach Steve Hansen delighted to see a vast improvement from his men near the end but unimpressed by the “dumb” yellow cards for McCaw and Conrad Smith.
Hansen reflected: “I’m very happy with our guys who showed a lot of fortitude. They haven’t played for five weeks and we’ll improve from that.”
It was a vibrant game, played amid a fantastic, colourful atmosphere for the first-ever full rugby international to be staged at England’s home of football since its rebuild, and yet all the drama on a balmy afternoon had begun with what had appeared to only be routine All Black excellence, as the New Zealanders started menacingly while forcing the under-pressure Pumas into indiscretions.
When flanker Pablo Matera was sent to the bin after just 10 minutes for a professional foul to stop Aaron Smith profiting from a quick penalty, Carter slotted home the second of three early penalties and the champions appeared to be sailing.
Suddenly, though, at 9-0 down, Argentina rallied from seemingly nowhere, Juan Imhoff weaving down the left before Argentina’s big men powered on through the phases leaving 20-year-old Guido Petti to burrow over for an ecstatically greeted score. He was the youngest try scorer in Argentina’s World Cup history.
New Zealand appeared as rattled as the inspired Pumas, with their old magician Juan Martin Hernandez getting everyone to their feet with some wonderful sleights of hand and probing kicks and their pack earning a penalty with one spectacular macho push.
Then, sensation. McCaw, who had already been pinged a couple of times by Barnes, the man all New Zealanders still blame for refereeing them out of the 2007 World Cup, was immediately shown yellow by the English official. He was ruled to have stuck his leg out while on the floor to deliberately stop Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe from powering away.
The pro-Argentinian crowd booed long and loud when McCaw, looking a slightly worried man, had his face shown on the big screen as he sat on the bench. Worse was to come for the All Blacks when Conrad Smith, just before half-time, was shown yellow for going off his feet to stop an Argentina attack.
The All Blacks captain scolded himself after receiving only his third yellow card in 143 tests, admitting afterwards that his offence was a “dumb” one, a “reflex action” which put his team in difficulty.
Sanchez’s two penalties from the McCaw and Smith offences gave Argentina a 13-9 lead but carelessly they gave another penalty away just before the interval for Carter to narrow the gap to one, 13-12, at the interval.
Yet Argentina picked up the mood again after the break, their early thrusting attacks earning Sanchez another penalty to stretch their lead but when restored to 15 and with Sonny Bill Williams making a major impact off the bench in place of Ma’a Nonu, the champions at last began to take control.
Nehe Milner-Skudder, freed by a superb Williams offload, dropped the ball with the try line at his mercy but after sustained pressure Aaron Smith finally darted away from a ruck through his scrum-half opponent Tomas Cubelli to score.
Then, with the Pumas beginning to retreat under the pressure, the All Blacks looked relieved to see replacement Cane finally seal the deal in the 67th minute with the ninth try for his country. It may not have been a true statement of intent but the All Blacks machine is up and running and Hansen warned: “We’re on the scoreboard and can move on and look forward to our next game with confidence.”