New Zealand secured a third straight Rugby Championship title on Saturday as they out-classed Argentina 34-13 with a try bonus-point in La Plata.
At times it was a joy to watch from the All Blacks as they scored the four tries required to become champions after the Boks won well at Newlands.
They will now travel to Johannesburg for their final fixture while the Pumas continue their wait for the Championship win. The Wallabies will be wary.
Despite the prospect of silverware in the back of their mind, the Kiwis played with all the freedom of a dead rubber as they cut loose against Argentina at times in the first-half, with tries from Ben Smith and Israel Dagg sending them in 20-6 ahead.
Beauden Barrett had opened the scoring on four minutes with a penalty after Brodie Retallick was taken out at line-out time before he added another three-pointer five minutes later. That Pumas ruck offence came after a now customary Julian Savea chip which found space in the opposition 22.
New Zealand were now showing an excellent balance of riding the physical home defence before making them bemused when they found mesmerising skills of the likes of Dagg and wing Smith, the former’s run down the right seeing him switch late with the latter for 13-0.
Argentina needed something, anything, to keep their crowd cheering and Nicolás Sánchez’s penalty after Dagg was pinged for blocking gave them adequate relief from the onslaught. Had he landed a further shot instead of hitting the post seven minutes later, hope maybe?
As it was the game was instead treated to something special from the world champions as Malakai Fekitoa’s pass to Ben Smith on the right wing saw him give a no-look pass to Dagg who went over for a try of his own. The favour had been returned by the devastating duo.
New Zealand now knew they were halfway from claiming the Rugby Championship trophy in La Plata, a week earlier than last season. But with the scoreline at 20-6 following a Sánchez penalty after Richie McCaw had swung around a ruck illegally, the result wasn’t yet sealed.
The second-half would prove though that the All Blacks were confident the tries would come as they turned down shots in favour of those five-pointers. However, their gamble would not pay off in the opening twelve minutes of the half as Argentina stood firm close to their line.
Julian Savea came closest to breaking the mini-deadlock on 55 minutes when he collected Barrett’s intelligent chip over in the opposition 22. But, for the second time, he was denied due to being marginally offside. One sensed though the Pumas weren’t out of the woods.
And that would prove to be the case as Aaron Smith’s long, flat pass to the left found the powerful finisher who saw off three defenders for what was their third try. Barrett’s simple extras made it 27-6 with just over 20 minutes left at Estadio Único Ciudad de La Plata.
Steve Hansen still wanted one final try though and after a period of defending in their own 22, his men attacked through Jerome Kaino showing searing pace before Savea combined with TJ Perenara as the replacement scrum-half dived over for the tournament-sealing try.
But the Pumas would have the final say as a lovely counter attack led to Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe offloading to another substitute, Horacio Agulla, for their only try.
Man of the match: Early on it was the Israel Dagg and Ben Smith show but for his all round performance, Jerome Kaino gets this gong. What a specimen. Malakai Fekitoa also shone.
Con: Gonzalez Iglesias
Pen: Sánchez 2
For New Zealand:
Tries: B Smith, Dagg, Savea, Perenara
Con: Barrett 4
Pen: Barrett 2
Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Juan Imhoff, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Juan Martín Hernández, 11 Manuel Montero, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Tomás Cubelli, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Benjamin Macome, 5 Tomas Lavanini, 4 Mariano Galarza, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Matías Cortese, 17 Lucas Noguera Paz, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Rodrigo Báez, 21 Martín Landajo, 22 Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, 23 Lucas González Amorosino.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Malakai Fekitoa, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Ben Franks, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Colin Slade, 23 Cory Jane.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (South Africa)