Ewen McKenzie finally broke his duck as Wallabies coach on a wild night in Perth less suited to international athletes than to, well, ducks. The weather, and the pressure of consecutive defeats, meant this was not a pretty win, but it was the win Australia just had to have. Argentina were superior at the scrum, so often the Wallabies’ Achilles heel in recent times, and their tight gameplan more appropriate for the conditions, but the men in gold dug deep to prevail. McKenzie shocked many by dropping the man many regard as the world’s best scrum half, Will Genia, to the bench, and left him there during the final nail-biting minutes when many coaches would have relied on his experience to see his side home. His replacement, Nic White, was impressive in his run-on debut, busy around the park and his long kicking for touch frequently relieving the pressure. There is now a real question mark as who will wear the number nine jersey in the next game, in Cape Town in a fortnight.
Despite Australia playing with the wind behind them in the first half, Argentina’s powerful forwards dominated the early exchanges, and the pressure forced the Wallabies into a transgression in front of the posts on seven minutes, Nicolas Sanchez slotting home the resulting penalty. This seemed to galvanise the Wallabies, particularly local boy Nick Cummings. He covered every rain-soaked blade of grass on the pitch, and his valiant chase of a speculative kick forced Argentina into illegally hanging onto the ball on the ground, Christian Leali’ifano levelling the scores.
Another penalty pushed the Wallabies in front and their confidence grew. They played some running rugby, despite the difficult conditions, and were rewarded in the 28th minute. White switched play to the right after a raid down the left flank, Copper shipped the ball on to O’Connor and his quick hands created a sliver of a gap for Israel Folau – a sliver is all rugby’s new try machine requires, and he burst through, his momentum taking the Pumas’ last ditch tacklers over the line with him to record his fourth five-pointer on only his seventh appearance. Ben Mowan, skipper for the first time in the absence of Genia, ran hard all night and his foray into the heart of the Pumas’ defence right on the half time hooter earned another penalty which Leali’ifano converted to take Australia into the break with a 14-3 lead.
Argentina enjoyed the wind at their backs on the resumption, but a combination of brave Wallabies defence and an uncharacteristically wayward attempt at goal by Sanchez prevented them from turning their territorial advantage into points.
Twenty minutes in, however, a scrum penalty allowed Sanchez to reduce the deficit to eight points.
The Pumas attacked with renewed vigour, their big forwards trying to punch holes in Australia’s defensive line with their stock-in-trade tactics of pick-and-drives and rolling mauls. With fifteen minutes to go Australia’s line was breached, skipper Juan Leguizamon crossing after another salvo from his fellow forwards left the Australians out on their feet. At this point the visitors had a quarter of an hour, and seemingly all the momentum, to overturn the one point they now trailed by.
But the Wallabies held firm. Led from the front by Mowan and the irrepressible openside flanker Michael Hooper, they tackled themselves to a standstill. Playing smarter than earlier in the second period, they did not kick the ball back to Argentina when they did get hold of it, but recycled possession and took time off the clock. They could afford a missed drop goal attempt by replacement fly half Matt Toomua and an unsuccessful penalty shot by Leali’ifano in the last five minutes, as their defensive steel and smarts kept Argentina out.
There seemed to be more relief than ecstasy at the final whistle, leaving no doubt as to the pressure the players and management were feeling after four consecutive defeats. At least McKenzie now has two weeks to prepare the squad for the tough road trip to South Africa on the back of a win – another loss would have meant that preparation taking place in the glare of negative publicity and the glinting of knives aimed at his back. It is a long climb back to the top of world rugby for the Wallabies, but the young team will have a spring in their step for the first time in months as they set out on that path.