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All Blacks overcome Argentina at Rugby Championship

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Associated Press
9/8/2012 10:25:05 AM
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand overcame ferocious opposition, horrendous weather, a floodlight failure and a former coach to beat Argentina 21-5 on Saturday, maintaining its unbeaten record through three rounds of the four-nation Rugby Championship.

The All Blacks were visibly startled by a sustained physical performance from the Pumas, whose coaching team included Graham Henry, the man who guided New Zealand to World Cup victory only 10 months ago.

They led only 6-5 at halftime after playing for the first 40 minutes in front of a gale which - peaking at 160 kph (100 mph) - tore the roofs off houses, uprooted trees and caused a power cut which plunged the stadium into darkness.

The start of the second half was delayed by more than 15 minutes when high winds took out power to the area around the stadium, which stands on exposed land near Wellington's seafront.

New Zealand was lucky to hold any lead by halftime after a first half entirely distinguished by Argentina's display of sustained courage and determination. Flyhalf Aaron Cruden kicked two penalties into New Zealand, judging the swirling wind, while Argentina shocked the All Blacks with a 12th-minute try to prop Rodrigo Roncero -- his sixth in 52 tests over 14 years.

The Pumas hurled themselves into tackles and into the contest for the loose ball and succeeded in thoroughly unsettling the All Blacks, breaking down their attacking game as effectively as the wind and sheeting rain.

Argentina confronted the All Blacks at the breakdown and denied them any quick or easy possession. It then produced fast, mobile and combative defence which gave New Zealand little or no freedom in any part of the field.

The Pumas effectively manned the gain line, broke down the link between scrumhalf and flyhalf and then, by rushing up in massed defence, closed down the All Blacks midfield and denied the wings.

The All Blacks expected to face a forward battle with Argentina and anticipated the quality of the defence but not its ferocity or protracted effectiveness. They were expected to win enough ball, and ball of sufficient quality, to be able to use their pace to eventually unpick the defence. But the Pumas staunched that possibility for 65 minutes, until New Zealand finally broke through with a try to winger Julian Savea and, a few minutes, another to Cory Jane.

The desperation that underpinned the Argentine defensive performance was epitomized just before halftime when All Blacks flanker Victor Vito headed for an open goalline from a turnover and blindside break, only to be cut down by the centre Marcelo Bosch who ran 30 metres to make the tackle.

"We take a lot of pride in our defence," Argentina captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe said. "I think the defence is where you show the spirit you have for your teammates.

"We wanted to win but it was a very hard contest today. They got into us in the second half and we didn't manage to play a lot away from our half. We gave everything, that's our goal and to improve with every game. We're going to work this week to get better against Australia."

New Zealand's performance in the first half was riddled with handling errors, some caused by the weather but most created by Argentina's aggressive defence. It was one of those errors, when centre Ma'a Nonu dropped the ball within 10 metres of his own line, which allowed Argentina the turnover that led to Roncero's early try.

The Pumas pounced on the possession, attacked, then camped on the All Blacks line and set the platform from which Roncero drove over.

New Zealand was unable to create any fluency in its play, met at the advantage line and driven back time after time by the fierce and massed Pumas defence. The All Blacks tried at times to play too much rugby in unfavourable conditions and against such an unyielding defence, and paid for it with costly errors.

They were able to hold onto the ball for longer periods in the second half, and that paid off when they eventually broke the dam of the defence in the 65th minute.

"I was happy with the second half," coach Steve Hansen said. "We showed a lot more respect for the football and we were a lot more clinical in our job.

"We didn't rush things, ran some nice, straight lines and were unlucky not to score another couple (of tries). But there's a fair bit of credit has to go to Argentina too. They're a great defensive side and it took a long time to break them down.

"The conditions were certainly a factor but, at the same time, we knew what they were. It wasn't as if we'd been blindfolded and just walked into it. We just didn't play as smart as we possibly could have. We tried to force one or two things and with the wet ball and the wind, it made it difficult to control."

New Zealand had clear advantages of territory and possession in the second half and exploited those. They also used a numerical advantage when Argentina was reduced to 14 men in the 58th minute by the sin-binning of Julio Farias for a professional foul.

Farias knocked down a pass near the Argentina goalline which would certainly have resulted in a try in an action which could have cost a penalty try but led, in part, to Savea's try seven minutes later.

In scoring through both wingers, New Zealand showed its ability to finish strongly while Argentina's courageous performance eventually faltered.

Charlie Faumuina (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images)
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