Australia drew a game that they should have won with ease, sharing points with Argentina in the Tri-Nations match on Saturday as they failed to learn from the failure of the tactics employed by New Zealand against the Pumas a week earlier.
But the tiredness factor may put paid to any hopes Argentina holds of winning the title over the next fortnight.
Last week, New Zealand did not bother to try kicking many of the kickable penalties they were awarded – and Australia did the same this week, There were five in the first half which were well within standoff Reece Hodge’s range and they could have sewn up the game by halftime had they not taken it for granted that the Argentines would be a pushover in their search for a try.
Instead, Australia went in with a 9-6 lead which was whittled away by the diligent and accurate Nicolas Sanchez who, like Hodge, missed just one kick in the game. Hodge’s miss was more heart-breaking, coming with a couple of minutes left in the game and the teams level at 15-all.
The Pumas were not half as fluent as they were the previous week, but then it must be tough to play two of the better teams in world rugby on successive weekends. And they also had to cope with having only 14 on the field for ten minutes in the second half when Julian Montoya was given a card.
Rarely has a team enjoyed such dominance in the first half, both in possession and field position, as Australia did and come away with less to show for it. There was poor discipline, with both Taniela Tupou and captain Michael Hooper gifting away penalties unnecessarily. In the set pieces, the Australian scrum stood firm in the first half, but deteriorated a bit in the second stanza, while Argentina was able to pinch a couple of lineouts.
Even the draw involved some luck; in the run-up to the last penalty that Australia converted, referee Paul Williams missed a knock-on by Allan Alaalatoa a few phases earlier.
The two standout players for Australia were Jordan Petaia and Hunter Paisami, with the former coming within an inch of scoring the only try of the game just before halftime, chasing through on a Paisami grubber and grounding the ball only for the slow-motion replay to show that he had put his foot in touch while doing so.
Winger Marika Koroibete, who seemed missing for most of the game, also dotted down once, but that was off a pass from Tom Banks that went forward by a few miles, and one that would have even been spotted by the English referee Wayne Barnes, who is known for his inability to detect such things.
Argentina’s defence has improved by a huge amount over the last couple of seasons and they are now as efficient in using the line defence as many of the top teams, rarely letting holes appear. That fact does not appear to have become apparent to either Australia or New Zealand, but in the next two games both teams would probably take this into account.
Three points cannot be sneered at when playing a team that is as committed as Argentina – scoring a five-pointer will generally be only possible after a lot of push and shove. Those days of running in blithely and dotting down against the Pumas do seem to be over.
While the three teams are now level on six points apiece, Argentina have a disadvantage in that they will have to play four successive games.
It’s a cruel draw, but the organisers have had no choice as they have to end the tournament on December 5 in order that the teams can get back to their families before Christmas after the mandatory two-week quarantine. Australia is at the bottom with the worst points difference.
Of course, New Zealand can play spoilsport next week with a bonus-point win over Argentina. But given the current state of play in the shaky isles, it is difficult to visualise such an outcome. Australia needs to take a long, hard look at itself and come back with a stronger game on December 5.
Despite the poor showing on Saturday, the title can still be theirs.