There were those who thought it could not be real, but they could not have been more wrong. Argentina were very real, from the opening moments of this World Cup to their eventual demise at last night's semi-final stage. But, ultimately, they were undone by the faultless line-out work and wide-ranging firepower of South Africa, who will attempt to relieve England of the Webb Ellis Trophy this coming Saturday.
It may be that the champions will not lose too much sleep over the threat posed by the Springbok pack. Indeed, they will fancy their chances of matching them step for step, despite the evidence of the one-sided pool match between the two countries last month – but they will be deeply worried about Bryan Habana, who scored two blistering tries here and looks more than ready for the biggest night of his sporting life.
The Blue Bulls wing was very much the top-of-the-bill act – no mean feat. given the magnificent efforts of the Puma half-backs, Agustin Pichot and Juan Martin Hernandez, and the tireless ground overage of the open-side flanker, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who shaded his battle with Juan Smith and kept the South Americans on the front foot for much of the encounter. The likes of Pichot may have had their day, but with Hernandez and Fernadez Lobbe heading for their prime, Argentina will get better, not worse.
Most of the Puma tight forwards blubbed their way through the national anthem – nothing new there – but no one ever accused them of being crybabies and they duly set about the Springbok scrum in the opening minutes. The two outsized South African props from the Free State, Os du Randt and C J Van der Linde, had been in their fair share of hot-oven set-pieces down the years, but they could hardly have expected the ferocity of the assault from Rodrigo Roncero and Martin Scelzo.
As a result of this aggression at the heart of the contest, the Argentinians made most of the early running. Their adventure hurt them, though. In the seventh minute, just as Habana clattered Roncero high with a deeply questionable tackle, Felipe Contepomi spun a pass off his right hand that was intercepted by Fourie du Preez, who took a diagonal line to the left corner and made it with something spare. Percy Montgomery added the extras, and the Boks were up and away.
Chastened by this negative experience but not put off his cultured game for a second, Contepomi reduced the arrears when Chris White, the English touch-judge, spotted a late hit by John Smit, the South African captain, on the industrious Pichot. Sadly for the Pumas, who were making far too many unforced errors, Ignacio Corleto slipped in fielding the restart and put his fellow South Americans in all manner of strife close to their own line. Steve Walsh, the referee, could have selected any one of half a dozen infringements. Montgomery restored the seven-point advantage after the New Zealander had made his choice.
Then Schalk Burger's brilliant ball-ripping work, which relieved a startled Gonzalo Longo of possession in the blink of an eye, allowed the South Africans to move the ball quickly to Habana, who chipped over Lucas Borges and completed a try of consummate class and precision. Then, in the first few seconds of stoppage time, Hernandez, of all people on the field, fumbled a pass and allowed Steyn and Burger to manufacture another try, this time for the snarling Danie Rossouw. With Montgomery converting both, Argentina found themselves 18 points adrift at the interval.
They needed an immediate response on the resumption, and to their great credit, they made it happen. The Puma pack worked overtime to turn over South African possession tight to the right touch-line, and after Fernandez Lobbe ran some of the hardest yards imaginable into the Springbok 22, supported by the faithful Mario Ledesma, the overlap going left was almost too difficult to mess up. Manuel Contepomi did his best by failing to ground the ball cleanly in Montgomery's last-ditch tackle, but the outside centre was awarded the try anyway. His brother converted to keep the game alive.
For the remainder of the proceedings, the Argentinians tried everything but their finishing was not quite up to it. The Boks, on the other hand, were never less than dangerous. Habana might have claimed a second try in the left corner, but for a tight forward-pass call from Walsh, while Montgomery's radar was perfectly tuned. He landed two penalties to take the Boks to the 30-point mark and as the clock ticked over, Habana cottoned on to another loose pass and hared in from long distance for the coup de grace.
Argentina: I Corleto (Stade Francais); L Borges (Stade Francais), M Contepomi (Newman), F Contepomi (Leinster), H Agulla (Hindu); J M Hernandez (Stade Francais), A Pichot (Racing Metro, capt); R Roncero (Stade Francais), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), M Scelzo (Clermont Auvergne), I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), P Albacete (Toulouse), L Ostiglia (Agen), J M Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), G Longo (Clermont Auvergne). Replacements: O Hasan (Toulouse) for Scelzo 36; R Alvarez Kairelis (Perpignan) for I Fernandez Lobbe 56; G Tiesi (London Irish) for M Contepomi 68; J M Leguizamon (London Irish) for Ostiglia 68.
South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal Sharks); J P Pietersen (Natal Sharks), J Fourie (Golden Lions), F Steyn (Natal Sharks), B Habana (Blue Bulls); B James (Natal Sharks), F Du Preez (Blue Bulls); O Du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal Sharks, capt), C J Van der Linde (Free State), B Botha (Blue Bulls), V Matfield (Blue Bulls), S Burger (Western Province), J Smith (Free State), D Rossouw (Blue Bulls). Replacements: J Muller (Natal Sharks) for Botha 21-29 and 81; J Du Plessis (Free State) for Du Randt 45-51 and 76; B Du Plessis (Natal Sharks) for Smit 81; W Olivier (Blue Bulls) for Steyn 81.
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).Reuse content