SYDNEY (AP) — Some of the winning players had tears in their eyes. The losing coach called it historic, and that it was.
Argentina shook off more than 13 months of inactivity to post its first-ever win over New Zealand on Saturday, beating the All Blacks 25-15 in a Tri-Nations rugby test.
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez scored all of Argentina’s points from a first-half try, six penalties and a conversion, steering it to an insurmountable 16-3 lead at halftime.
New Zealand, coming off a loss to Australia last weekend, expected an easier time against an Argentina team playing its first test since the World Cup in Japan last October.
Instead, the Pumas took control of the match early on and refused to relinquish it, posting their first win in 30 tests against New Zealand since their first in 1985.
Argentina didn’t miss a tackle in the match, neutralizing the All Blacks’ attacking game and shutting down an attempted All Blacks revival in the second half.
Captain Sam Cane scored a try for the All Blacks in the 53rd minute but it wasn’t the start of a winning rally. With unyielding defense and outstanding work in the loose, Argentina kept control of possession and tempo.
Its only points after halftime were three Sanchez penalties but they were enough to keep New Zealand at bay. Though Argentina visibly tired in the last 15 minutes, as was to be expected of a team playing for the first time in 13 months and five days, it kept making the vital tackles.
When No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu threw a pass into touch with his winger unmarked and the line open in the 72nd minute, New Zealand’s last hope of saving the match evaporated and a try after the full-time siren to Caleb Clarke was little consolation.
At the final whistle there was jubilation among the Pumas players, some of whom recovered from COVID-19 during the team’s long absence from the test arena. In the coaches’ box, head coach Mario Ledesma and his adviser, former Wallabies coach Michael Cheika, celebrated one of the great coaching achievements in test history.
“This is a big day for Argentina rugby,” said Pumas captain Pablo Matera, who had an massive influence on his team’s performance.
"This is a great day for our country and our people. It was very hard to come here and prepare for this tournament and we just wanted to show our people who have been through a lot that with a lot of determination you can get things done.”
Argentina took control of the match in the first half, playing with more purpose and accuracy than New Zealand and setting a slow tempo which suited their game.
They weren’t able to dominate as they hoped by asserting their strength at set pieces: more than 30 minutes had elapsed before the first scrum and those that followed were often unsightly.
Instead, they took charge of the match in the loose where the All Blacks again were bested, as they were in last weekend's 24-22 loss to Australia.
Argentina’s ball carriers hit targets which ensured forwards were quickly available to clear out at the breakdowns and maintain possession. In a physical and fractious match, New Zealand’s discipline was wanting and it paid heavily for its unnecessary involvement in scuffles off the ball.
New Zealand’s game, in contrast, was disorganized, and there were no targets for loose forwards to be first to the breakdown. Argentina was often able to turn over possession by taking advantage of isolated players.
Sanchez’s try came in the 19th minute when he chip kicked over the All Blacks backline and the ball landed in space. No. 8 Rodrigo Bruni nudged the ball ahead and Sanchez regathered to score under the posts, and giving his team an early 10-3 lead.
The All Blacks were rattled and weren’t able to compose themselves, even during the halftime break.
Cane scored from a lineout drive but there was never any indication of a concerted rally.
“They had a lot more intensity, more line speed and their defense was excellent tonight,” Cane said.
New Zealand coach Ian Foster said his side was “bitterly disappointed" with the loss.
“But what I think we saw was a team that despite the disadvantage of not playing a lot of rugby . . . they have come here with massive energy and a desire to prove something to their country which has gone through a heck of a hard time. I want to congratulate them on the result, it is a bit of an historic day for them.”
Argentina coach Mario Ledesma said the result was “surreal . . . not just the result but playing, getting on the field after everything that has happened this year.
“Some of the boys haven’t seen their families for four months. I think we will remember this for a long time, not only the game but because of the special situation.
“I’ve received a lot of messages. For us, and for everyone, I think it’s the only team we haven’t beaten,” Ledesma added. “I guess someone will write a book about it.”
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