In the end the All Blacks defeated Argentina with eight men.
Whether you choose to believe in the rust theory – the All Blacks hadn’t played a test match since August 15 at Eden Park – or the more magnanimous approach to analysis, which is to give the Pumas at least some kudos for their line speed and commitment on defence, the truth is, the All Blacks’ bench won this game. And all eight of them were pretty good.
One was gooder than most. Sonny Bill Williams, that most polarising character of all in the professional era of All Blacks rugby didn’t so much spark the New Zealand attack as take a flamethrower to it. His first carry was straight out of the Chiefs’ playbook, ripping into the fragmented Puma pack with characteristic urgency, and his subsequent runs were each incrementally more important to the overall result than the last. Hell, he even kicked a half-decent touch finder.
Prominent, too, were Charlie Faumuina and Wyatt Crockett – the former all beard and brawn as he carted ball after ball into the tiring defensive line, the latter further belying his outdated reputation as a scrummaging penalty magnet.
The third of the front row replacements, Keven Mealamu, threw accurate darts and hunted the ball like a pig on a truffle. Argentine captain Agustin Creevy, who was substituted shortly after Mealamu’s 68th minute introduction to play, even stopped on his way off the field to wish Mealamu well. He knew the game was gone. Still, it was a touching moment – a reminder of Mealamu’s status as some kind of strange honorary global rugby Kaumatua-slash-yoda.
Beauden Barrett was good too. He operated as a spare electron, whizzing about the place with his trademark instability, positionally homeless, occasionally reckless and happy to be so. Cane, Vito, Perenara – each of the them played a part in the inevitable demoralisation and ultimate defeat of Argentina.
Sadly, this was the same old storyline for Argentina: an infinitely predictable matinee performance that promised a hero and delivered a heartbreak. The All Blacks got their customary fright along the way (did they, really?) but ultimately the Pumas played the role of 15 Zorros who provoked the bad guys in act one and then failed to turn up for the climactic, triumphal denouement.
There were disappointing moments for the All Blacks. Richie McCaw’s leg trip and justifiable sin binning was a low point. Quite what the New Zealand captain thought he was gaining from that is a mystery. Being jeered for 142 tests worth of testing the limits of rugby’s law book is one thing. Blatantly and flagrantly pulling out one of the game’s ultimate dick moves in the heart of enemy territory is a stunning departure from the McCaw norm, and manna from heaven for his detractors.
Conrad Smith’s professional foul was just that. He too deserved time in the chair but, in his defence, he probably saved a try. Cheating is all about context and perspective. At least, it is in a game of endlessly interpretable laws.
Was this the irresistible statement of superiority the All Blacks sought to make? No. Was it a salutary lesson in self-belief and the power of repetition? Most definitely. Was it same shit, different day for Argentina? Afraid so.
It was all that, and it was something more: It was further evidence that the team that wins this title will be the team that can boast a bench of game changers, calm campaigners, and ever-present dangers. You need eight good men riding the pine. England had that in game one. Japan had that, too. The All Blacks had it today too. And that’s still their most effective weapon of all.