New Zealand put one hand on the Rugby Championship trophy by outclassing Argentina 33-15 with a key bonus point yesterday.
Still without a loss after five matches, the All Blacks head to Ellis Park next weekend for a fitting finale against archrival South Africa and the advantage of retaining the title with even a narrow loss.
The Springboks will need a bonus-point win to claim the trophy, but they have not beaten the All Blacks and scored at least four tries for nine years.
The All Blacks scored their fourth try for the bonus point in the last seconds at La Plata when winger Ben Smith stepped one Pumas defender, ran over another and dived between the posts for his second try of the match and seventh of the tournament to head the try-scoring list.
“That [bonus point] could be crucial,” New Zealand captain Kieran Read said. “We worked hard for that and were lucky to get there at the end.”
A sloppy first 50 minutes on a damp field, in which New Zealand conceded penalties and free kicks while Argentina frittered away hard-won possession, saw the All Blacks leading 14-12, but hardly feeling in danger.
The Pumas, who have never beaten New Zealand, failed to threaten the tryline in front of 40,000 fans and could stay with the visitors only in scrums and on the scoreboard through penalty kicks. However, even by the end, New Zealand’s scrum was untroubled.
New Zealand finally broke open the match with tries in the 52nd and 56th minutes featuring inside center Ma’a Nonu, leaving the Pumas behind at 26-12. The All Blacks then spent most of the last quarter desperately seeking their fourth try for a bonus point and had to wait until the last minute to secure it.
Rain stopped before the match, but left the track and ball greasy. Only one try was scored in the first half, in the 23rd minute, when Read forced Pumas flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez to forget a dropped goal attempt and send up a bomb. However, the ball spilled and was scooped up by All Blacks winger Julian Savea. From 65m out, he broke two tackles and touched down.
Aaron Cruden was given two chances to convert the try because he was disturbed by a laser light from the stands, but missed both chances. Still, he converted both of his penalty chances against three from Sanchez for an 11-9 halftime lead.
Prop Charlie Faumuina replaced the injured Owen Franks at halftime, but another scrum penalty was conceded and Marcelo Bosch put it over from halfway for the Pumas to lead 14-12. Cruden immediately got the lead back with his third penalty.
Flanker Sam Cane then scored out on the left wing, off Nonu’s pass, after a long buildup in which New Zealand’s forwards bashed the Pumas back. Moments later, from another All Blacks lineout, Nonu perfectly delayed his pass, which left a gap for Smith to slice through the defense and weave 40m to the line.
Nonu and center partner Conrad Smith played their 50th test together to tie the world record of Ireland duo Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy.
Pumas utility back Felipe Contepomi entered the game in the 61st to play his 86th test and equal Lisandro Arbizu and Rolando Martin as Argentina’s most capped players.
The Pumas have yet to win a match in their second season playing in the championship, but will welcome a reeling Australia to Rosario on the weekend. The Wallabies only beat the Pumas by a point at home two weeks ago and fell to South Africa 28-8 on Saturday while Argentina have traditionally performed well on home soil.