By Nick Mulvenney
Captain Michael Hooper grabbed a brace as Australia held off a late surge from Argentina to register a 32-25 victory in the Rugby Championship at Robina Stadium on the Gold Coast on Saturday.
The home side looked to be cruising to victory when they took a 29-17 lead after Peter Betham scored their third try on the hour mark but the Pumas charged back in the last 20 minutes to take the game down to the wire.
Centre Marcelo Bosch and fullback Joaquin Tuculet added to winger Manuel Montero’s first-half try but they were unable to get a fourth to give themselves a chance to square the scores.
The match ended when referee Glen Jackson awarded a free kick against Argentina replacement scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli for feeding an attacking five-metres scrum too early.
That left Argentina still searching for their first win in the championship after 16 attempts and with yet another narrow defeat to one of the southern hemisphere heavyweights.
Despite an excellent performance from flyhalf Bernard Foley, who kicked five penalties and a conversion, the Wallabies will rue not finishing off a string of chances and killing off the match earlier.
“Their comeback was due to our discipline and errors,” said Hooper. “We couldn’t exit, we knocked on in our own ‘d’ zone. We have got to get better, get clinical and take pressure off our backs.
“But that’s two in a row now. We have only lost one this season. There’s a lot we can take from this one. It started raining right at kickoff again so it was tough to play and get line breaks.”
Australia came into their fourth match of the championship still looking to find their ‘mojo’ after the 51-20 hammering at the hands of the All Blacks in round two and a last-gasp 24-23 win over South Africa last week.
Hooper showed the way inside two minutes, bursting free up the middle from a superb Foley flat pass and racing 22 metres to touch down in the hands of a couple of tacklers.
Argentina hit back off turnover ball five minutes later, though, with Montero charging 60 metres down the left wing through the tackles of Betham, Hooper and Foley to even up the scores.
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez’s conversion gave the visitors a 7-5 lead but the Wallabies were still dominating and Foley inched them back in front from the kicking tee nine minutes later.
With the home scrum holding their own and the backs keeping ball in hand, it looked just a matter of time before the second try came but, despite carving out a couple of excellent chances, they could only manage two more penalties before the break.
Hooper got his second try four minutes after halftime, snaring a loose ball and racing untouched to the line, and when Foley added the extras, Australia were 21-7 ahead.
Sanchez cut the deficit with his first penalty after 50 minutes and added another after 58 minutes but Foley also landed his fourth to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Australia’s third try came on the hour mark courtesy of a defence-splitting break from scrumhalf Nick Phipps, whose pass set Betham free to finish well in the corner.
The Pumas would not lie down, though, and Cubelli cut through the home defence to take the visitors down to the try line, where quick ball from the ruck allowed Bosch to score.
Sanchez put the conversion over and Argentina were right back in the match at 29-20 down before taking another huge chunk out of that lead after 71 minutes.
The Pumas turned the ball over deep in Australia’s half and Cubelli spotted space on the right wing and chipped through with Tuculet winning a one-sided race to the ball to make it 29-25 with nine minutes remaining.
The conversion attempt from Sanchez hit the upright, though, and Foley’s fifth penalty made it a seven-point game – a gulf that ultimately the Pumas were unable to bridge.
“We were thinking about winning that game and scoring that try. But we made a mistake and didn’t get it,” said Pumas skipper Agustin Creevy.
“We know they are an excellent team. We know that we can beat other teams but Australia is a very good team.”