All Blacks win over Pumas comes at a cost
The All Blacks remain undefeated in 2013, but at what cost?
Their captain is out for the rest of the Rugby Championship after Richie McCaw was just one New Zealander to feel the physical impact of these committed Pumas.
If this was a tennis match, the All Blacks held serve. Nothing more. Nothing less. No real reason for celebration, and maybe a little for consternation as the Rugby Championship leaders were denied a bonus point.
But it was job done, three tries to one, on a tricky night where the rain fell steadily soon after the kickoff, and Argentina brought the passion and intensity to the occasion that is their hallmark when they have their minds on the job.
McCaw hobbled off around the 60-minute mark with a medial knee ligament injury that will rule him out for four to five weeks - in other words, the rest of the competition. The All Blacks must now face the South Africans at Eden Park on Saturday night without their talismanic skipper and influential openside.
"At this stage it looks like a four to five-weeker," said coach Steve Hansen afterwards. "He might wake up in the morning and feel a lot better, but we're not thinking it's going to be like that. We might as well get it out now and get on with it."
Hansen all but confirmed Canterbury flanker Matt Todd would be brought into the squad to face the Boks, with Sam Cane set to start his biggest test in the No 7 jersey. Kieran Read will assume the captaincy.
Prop Tony Woodcock was also unable to continue after halftime but Hansen confirmed that was just a bout of the flu, while Wyatt Crockett received a late bell-ringer that will need assessment on Sunday. The All Blacks will be licking their wounds in the wake of a game where their execution was well below par in conditions that demanded accuracy.
It was a long way from the world champs at their fluent best as they racked up their 15th straight victory over the Pumas and their 28th on the bounce at home. The visitors contributed to that with their rushing defence, their commitment at the tackle and their big scrum which appeared to unsettle the All Blacks.
The All Blacks dominated at lineout time where the Pumas were awful for most of the contest and got big-time performances out of loose forwards Kieran Read and Steven Luatua up front. They were the diamonds amid the drudgery.
Little Aaron Smith had another sharp match to bag a brace of tries and there some positive contributions from Israel Dagg under the high ball and Ben Smith wide on the right. Francis Saili had a mixed debut, but did well to shake off an early howler that coughed up a try.
But overall the errors flowed too freely for any satisfaction in the home camp. Coach Hansen admitted to some disquiet over the error-rate but felt the conditions had contributed mightily to both teams being off the mark there.
It had not been a bright start for the New Zealanders who found themselves trailing 7-0 inside five minutes when debutant Saili committed a schoolboy handling error in midfield and had the mortification to see big No 8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon loping in for a gift-wrapped try.
But gradually the hosts worked their way back into this contest. Dan Carter, short of his best overall, goaled his first penalty, then missed two tricky ones, before the match turned on a 22nd-minute yellow card for Pumas hooker Eusebio Guinazu who was tardy rolling away from the tackle as the All Blacks hit the red zone.
The world champions did not need a second invitation, with Aaron Smith touching down twice within four minutes as they thrust into a 15-7 lead. Both times the little halfback was the beneficiary of some clever creative play from his colleagues.
The first came when outstanding No 8 Read detached from a lineout drive and wrapped a brilliant blind offload round a defender to put the halfback over in the corner; the second when Carter's clever break from deep resulted in a nicely weighted Ben Smith kick which Smith did well to get a hand on as it bobbled free ingoal.
At that stage the Argentine lineout was in disarray and with the ranging Luatua cropping up all over the field, the All Blacks looked ominous. Luckily the visitors stemmed the flow, picked up three further points on the half-hour mark and snuck into the break still in the hunt, at 10-15.
The All Blacks would not have been happy with their eight first-half handling errors, nor their inability to deal effectively with Argentina's defensive line speed which caused its share of issues.
That anxiety would not have eased over a second half where the hosts managed just one more try - to wing Julian Savea off Read's excellent charge-down - and continued to drop the ball.
Argentina played hard till the end, and the All Blacks stagger, rather than swagger, into their first matchup of the year against those dangerous Springboks.
New Zealand 28 (Aaron Smith 2, Julian Savea tries; Daniel Carter 2 conversions, 2 penalty goals; Beauden Barrett penalty goal) Argentina 13 (Juan Manuel Leguizamon try; Nicolas Sanchez conversion, 2 penalty goals). Halftime 15-10 New Zealand.