THE WALLABIES were bashed, smashed and almost crashed, but somehow held on long enough to be able to enjoy a brave 23-19 victory over Argentina on the Gold Coast last night.
If anyone had doubts the Pumas would not be competitive in the opening season of the Rugby Championship, they were certainly dispelled last night when they came so close to embarrassing the Wallabies on their home turf.
The Pumas astounded the Wallabies with their ferocity and commitment, which on the hour saw them in front 19-6, and it was only after an excruciating 68 minutes that Australia at last took the lead.
So effective was the Pumas' physical approach that the Wallabies never looked comfortable, were often rattled into making mistakes, and had to desperately scramble in the final quarter to save face.
The Wallabies had been warned for weeks that the Pumas would be ruthless and relentless. But they still seemed completely stunned in the first half when the unforgiving Argentineans pounded them from every angle, and then came back for more strong arm mauling to throw the Wallabies right off their game and enjoy a 6-3 half-time lead.
At times the Wallabies appeared to have no idea what had actually hit them, and while they played with adventure and width, never looked comfortable because lurking nearby was a fearless Pumas defender who repeatedly chopped them right off at the knees.
As it showed against the All Blacks last week, Argentina boasts the most aggressive of defensive alignments, effecting stunning tackle after tackle to thwart numerous dangerous Wallabies charges, and having Australian players holding parts of their bruised and sore bodies. And soon, through such intense pressure, the mistakes started to build up for the home team.
Flyhalf Quade Cooper had numerous edgy moments before the break, throwing a crazy forward pass which went over the sideline, and then knocking on when a pass flew at his head.
It was soon obvious the Pumas knew if they hovered around Cooper, errors were inevitable. And they came thick and fast throughout a frenetic Test.
It was all about pressure, and the Pumas were on top in that area for most of the Test, getting in the Wallabies' territory enough to take the lead, and hold onto it.
The Wallabies decided that if they played at pace and used fast passes they could get around the Pumas defence, and it almost worked on several occasions. The ball often ended in winger Digby Ioane's vicinity, but his opposite Gonzalo Camacho was up to the task, stopping him on numerous occasions, and even mauling the ball off him, which almost led to a runaway Argentinean try. Camacho was a standout, and the Wallabies weren't upset when he was replaced just before half-time.
To their credit, even though the Pumas defence was so effective, they did not stop being adventurous early on, and could have had two first-half tries. Wallabies No.8 Radike Samo was over the line in the 22nd minute but dropped the ball just before grounding it.
Wallabies captain Nathan Sharpe made a wild charge at the line in the 36th minute, but was held up. Adding to the Wallabies' exasperation was the fact that two of Berrick Barnes's penalty kicks hit the right upright. Then it went completely askew early in the second half when the Pumas scored twice in just three minutes, and the Wallabies found themselves floundering.
Cooper blundered again, with a clearing kick out of his own quarter being charged down by Pumas replacement flanker Tomas Leonardi, who then regathered to score.
Then a charge along the sideline proved too much for several Wallabies defenders, who badly missed their opponents, with backrower Julio Farias Cabello finishing off the movement.
A penalty goal shortly after and the Wallabies were staring at a diabolical 19-6 deficit. This required drastic action, and it came in the 61st minute when Australia's most fearless attacker, Pat McCabe, put his head down, charged straight at the line and at last the Wallabies boasted a try.
Seven minutes on and the Wallabies had the lead for the first time in the Test, when Nick Phipps made the break and put Ioane through.
And all around Australia you could hear a loud sigh of relief.
AT A GLANCE
AUSTRALIA 23 (Digby Ioane, Pat McCabe tries Berrick Barnes 2 cons Barnes 2, Kurtley Beale pens) bt ARGENTINA 19 (Julio Farias Cabello, Tomas Leonardi tries Juan Martin Hernandez 3 pens) at Skilled Park. Referee: Wayne Barnes. Crowd: 22,278.