NEW PLYMOUTH, New Zealand (AP) — Flanker Vaea Fifita marked his first test start with a brilliant solo try which lifted New Zealand from the brink of defeat to a 39-22 win over Argentina in the Rugby Championship on Saturday.
Trailing 22-15 and down to 14 men in the 50th minute, a listless and disorganized All Blacks team appeared to be facing its first-ever test loss to Argentina, which found sudden inspiration after seven straight test defeats.
But Fifita, described by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen this week as "a real physical beast," picked up a loose pass in midfield and ran 40 meters around the flank of the Pumas' compressed defense to score the converted try that leveled the scores.
Late tries to Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett sealed the win, keeping New Zealand unbeaten in the Rugby Championship through three rounds.
While the All Blacks won by six tries to one, they had to consider themselves lucky to have avoided their first loss to Argentina in 29 test meetings.
"It was another one of those testing times in the second half and to come out of it I'm really proud," All Blacks captain Kieran Read said.
"At halftime we talked about backing ourselves. We had scored three tries but we had tried to push things a bit much so we had to get back to looking after the ball. Once we did that, some pretty special things happened."
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez scored a try among 16 points as the Pumas fully stretched New Zealand, pushing it to the brink of panic before Fifita's contribution changed the tide of the match.
Argentina again exposed defensive weaknesses and problems of discipline which have been features of the All Blacks' game this season. But New Zealand also showed the facility, as it did against Australia two weeks ago, to find a way to win even when the prospect of doing so seemed remote.
Against the Wallabies, the All Blacks were behind with only three minutes remaining but engineered a try in that three-minute period which carried them to a 35-29 win. On Saturday, they seemed to have exhausted their attacking ideas before Fifita sparked their resurgence.
While Argentina played well to a conservative game plan, stretching the All Blacks by carrying the ball powerfully through inside channels, then taking kicking opportunities when they presented themselves, New Zealand hoped its natural brilliance would be enough to carry it to a win.
The Pumas' style, exemplified by captain Agustin Creevy who was a tireless ball-carrier and defender, was effective on a wet night and they were able to camp for long periods in All Blacks territory, denying the home team possession.
But there were times when more ambition might have served them well, especially when they had a one-man advantage. Their only try came moments before halftime when they had repeatedly battered the All Blacks' line from close range and a gap finally opened for Sanchez, who scored and converted his own try, giving the Pumas a 16-15 lead at the break.
Sanchez also contributed a penalty and a dropped goal before halftime and another penalty in the second half. Winger Emiliano Boffelli scored with two long-range penalties, from 51 meters in the first half and from 50 meters on a wide angle in the first minute of the second spell.
That made the lead 19-15 and it became 22-15 with a Sanchez penalty in the 50th, when Barrett was sin-binned for a try-saving professional foul.
The All Blacks found a match-winning hero in Fifita, whose long-striding run for the All Blacks' fourth try broke the heart of Argentina's large contingent of fans. The Pumas deflated in the last 15 minutes, recalling last season's meeting at Hamilton where Argentina led until the 60th minute, then faded to lose 57-22.
"Our message in the shed at halftime was to keep on doing our job, stick with the task, but it was not enough," Pumas scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli said.