Wales hardly produced a vintage display but it was enough to “restore pride” as they ended a five-game losing run.
Victory was all that mattered in Cardiff, following the debacle against Australia, and it was little wonder the over-riding emotion at the final whistle was relief.
Liam Williams got a nervy Wales side on course when he finally made pressure count on the scoreboard with a try early in the second half.
Gareth Davies followed but the game still came down to the boot of Leigh Halfpenny after Wales were pegged back to within a point three times by a stubborn Argentina side.
“It has been a tough week so it’s important that we celebrate a win,” said caretaker coach Rob Howley.
“This game was all about putting some pride back in the national jersey. I never question the attitude of the players. Last week’s first half display [against Australia] was something we had never experienced before but in fairness, the players rolled up their sleeves, had the right edge and deserve the accolades.
“It was good to get a win against a side above us in the world rankings but more important to win at home because that’s where we want to improve our success rate.”
The Pumas had little of the ball but gave Wales a lesson in making their opportunities count as Juan-Martin Hernandez and Martin Landajo both responded to Welsh scores with tries of their own.
“It was a massive relief and the feeling at the end was very different when you come off with a win,” admitted captain Gethin Jenkins.
“We had our back against the wall but the boys showed the right reaction and attitude. We felt in control for most of the game but we let Argentina back in when we switched off at a penalty and they scored without having applied any real pressure. That’s something we need to work on.”
Jenkins wore the armband on the day he became the world’s most capped prop on his 133rd Test appearance, but it was the return of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton that made a significant difference as they stopped Argentina in their tracks.
It was a monumental effort from Jones, playing for the first time since the death of his father a fortnight ago.
“He is world-class and brings the players around him to another level,” said Howley.
“To have him and Sam Warburton back in the squad clearly raises our level performance, particularly given what Alun Wyn has been through over the last two weeks.
“The way he and Sam are able to hold players up in the contact area meant we could stop Argentina and get good line-speed in defence.”
Wales had 62 per cent possession in the first half but were unconvincing with it, resulting in early turnovers and missed opportunities, even when were Argentina reduced to 14 men after Ramiro Herrera was binned.
Wales had to settle for a 6-3 lead at half-time that more like a deficit, given the way Argentina’s seven forwards shoved Wales off a scrum five yards from the try line.
Williams, another to recover from injury, was again Wales’ most potent threat, and after twice going close in the first half, barged his way over two minutes into the second.
Alun Wyn Jones was fortunate to escape punishment for a neck roll on Sanchez but Wales did not get away with a lack in concentration when Landajo’s quick penalty saw Hernandez touch down.
A speculative kick by Jenkins, of all people, ended up winning a lineout that was finished with Davies squeezing over for Wales’ second try.
Yet Wales again allowed Argentina a quick response as Davies’ number Landajo squeezed over and Sanchez converted. But Halfpenny held his nerve to slot two late penalties.
Wales: Tries – L Williams, G Davies. Con – L Halfpenny. Pens – L Halfpenny (4)
Argentina: Tries – JM Hernandez, M Landajo. Cons – N Sanchez (2). Pens – N Sanchez (2)
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, S Williams; D Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins (capt, N Smith 63), K Owens (S Baldwin, 45), T Francis, L Charteris, AW Jones, S Warburton, R Moriarty, J Tipuric.
Argentina: J Tuculet (J De La Fuente, 36); M Moroni, M Orlando, J-M Hernandez (S Iglesias, 75), S Cordero; N Sanchez, M Landajo (T Cubelli, 63); L Noguera (S Botta, 50), A Creevy (capt), R Herrera (E Pieretto, 70), G Petti (T Lezana, 58), M Alemanno, P Matera (L Senatore, 62), F Isa, J Desio (E Pieretto 39-49).
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
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