New Zealand 33 (B. Smith two, Savea, Cane tries; Cruden conversion, three penalties, Barrett conversion) beat Argentina 15 (Sánchez four penalties, Bosch penalty) at Estadio Ciudad de La Plata, crowd ~40,000, Rugby Championship, 28 September 2013.
Argentines are a patriotic bunch. You can’t walk down one block in Buenos Aires without being reminded that the Falklands are Argentine (or rather, that ‘Las Malvinas Son Argentinas’). They don’t need a second invitation to wave the national flag. This is a country that shadows Australia’s volume of public holidays because of the number of national heroes, flags, battles etc. that they need to celebrate. But there was something not quite right about Los Pumas’ Rugby Championship clash with New Zealand – there was a suspicious number of All Blacks fans with distinctly Argentine accents.
La Plata itself is a weird place – the capital of Buenos Aires province and very obviously a planned city, set out by a criss-cross of streets named confusingly by number rather than name or even ‘Calle’ or ‘Avenida’; a pleasant but boring place with nothing to sustain a visitor’s interest beyond an hour or two. The atmosphere was also sterilised by the miserable weather – a DJ blared terrible gringo music to a non-existent crowd outside the main turnstiles – and the choking traffic between Buenos Aires proper and this bizarre city just 70km down the road, lined with election ads for Mesut Özil’s look-alike Sergio Massa and dead-ringer for Souths coach Michael Maguire, Martín Insaurralde, for the upcoming provincial elections.
The All Blacks’ over-the-top police escort which siphoned off one lane of the already over-crowded highway symbolised this strange reverence that locals had towards the visitors, the kind of reaction you’d expect if LeBron James and the rest of the Dream Team ventured to Sydney to take on the NBL All-Stars, the type of adulation that follows Manchester United when they play those big-money exhibition games overseas.
Camera flashes lit up the arena as New Zealand performed the haka – a perpetual fascination outside the traditional rugby-playing nations – and a breathlessness gripped the crowd, hinting that this Kiwi team – rather than an unlikely Pumas victory – was what they had shelled their hard-earned to see.
The stadium suited the sterile city it was situated in: a huge dorm in the shape of a chocolate chip that looked like a landed UFO; a single-tiered bowel with a distant halo of corporate boxes hovering above the plebs below; the type of modern stadium you normally see constructed for major tournaments. The patchwork of flags belonging to junior clubs from all across Argentina heightened the big-game atmosphere, the sense of pilgrimage to witness the gods of the game they play in heaven.
My bus’ tardiness meant a soggy dash to the stadium and a seat in what is normally a partition between home and away fans for football matches – indeed, the very same terrace where a rioting Lanús fan had been shot and killed by police just last June. The constabulary would be relieved that this well-heeled rugby crowd was far more tranquil, even after a rendition of Argentina’s stirring himno nacional that drew a tear from even the most rugged player in the handsome sky-blue-and-white stripes.
Argentina drew first blood and toiled hard throughout the first quarter of the match to establish a deserved 6-3 lead, arm wrestling gallantly with their Antipodean guests. If anything, the hosts could have been accused of being too conservative, opting for penalties when they ought to have had the confidence to hammer for tries.
They were made to pay as Savea streaked down the sideline for the first five-pointer, painstakingly confirmed by TMO Deon van Blommestein (no prizes for guessing where this South African hailed from). That handed Aaron Cruden the unenviable task of converting from the sideline with a green laser pointer dancing on the ball. Much to the crowd’s frustration, the Kiwi No.10 took an eternity to strike the ball, only to miss and be handed another opportunity, also spurned.
A narrow 11-9 arrears at the interval gave the Argentines who actually stuck fat with their team some genuine cause for optimism but the All Black blitz early in the second stanza put paid to that idea. An early Bocsh penalty was cancelled out by a Cruden three-pointer, from where there was no return. Sam Cane – a hulking back-rower bludging on the wing – was the gleeful recipient of a standard catch-and-pass routine, which broke Argentina’s resolve. A clever Ma’a Nonu ball released Ben Smith, who crossed without a finger being laid on him.
Two small groups of Kiwi tourists stationed in the prime A1 seats right on the halfway jumped for joy as locals – the ones not unconvincingly masquerading as Kiwis for the evening, that is – lit cigarettes, like death-row prisoners about to be led to the firing squad. The two-try buffer gave ABs coach Steve Hansen the green light to roll his entire bench through the last quarter of the game, eventually breaking through for the bonus point courtesy of Smith’s second.
Perhaps the 33-15 scoreline failed to reflect Los Pumas’ competitiveness and created a nagging sense of missed opportunity. The All Blacks were never required to extend themselves against a home side that lacked daring. Like their team, the Kiwi commentators were never challenged – the Pumas’ reluctance to spread the ball spared the callers the tongue-twisting No.14 Lucas González Amorosino and the chance to make any cringeworthy “He’s off!” puns for No.11 Juan Imhoff.
Instead, this was a clinical performance by a world-class team. Much like Brazil in football and the Dream Team in basketball, the All Blacks are the gold standard. When they turn up, the other team is reduced to the role of Washington Generals – little wonder so many patriotic Argentines were in the ABs corner for the evening.