Pumas break their duck
Argentina finished their year with the first win of their European tour when they beat Italy 19-14 in a scrappy match at a rain-soaked Stadio Olimpico, in Rome, on Saturday.
It was only the second win of the year for the Pumas and their first against significant opposition, with their only other victory having been against Georgia in June.
In the end the boot of flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez proved the difference, as he kicked a conversion, three penalties and a drop-goal to win the match for his country.
The rain, that fell for most of the morning and again started to come down during the game, made conditions rather tricky.
This did not stop the teams from trying to play some rugby, although the error count mounted throughout the match.
The scrums were an intriguing battle – with Argentina getting a clear edge in the first set piece, pushing Italy backwards, but then the next scrum saw the Azzurri put the Pumas into reverse. And the third scrum went the way of Argentina, when they won a turnover by shoving the Italians backwards again. The ding-dong battle continued throughout the match.
In the line-outs the Pumas had the edge, winning a number on the Italian throw. However, they weren't helped with hooker Eusebio Guinazo's poor throwing.
Argentina, despite showing plenty of endeavour, cost themselves with a number of errors that handed possession back to the Italians. However, on the occasions that they did manage to hold onto the ball, they exposed the Italian defence.
The Latin temperament of the players also came to the fore, with incidents of 'handbags at 10 paces' adding to the first half entertainment.
The early stages of the match was marked by some extraordinary poor tactical kicking, which resulted in most of the game being played between the two 22-metre lines and neither team threatening the opposition's defence.
The first points came from a Tommaso Allan penalty, after the Italian scrum got the edge, and the home team held a 3-0 lead after five minutes.
Veteran prop Martin Castrogiovanni set up the next scoring opportunity by winning a penalty at the breakdown for his team, but Allan's attempt drifted well wide. However, he made amends in the 18th minute, slotting a penalty (to make it 6-0), after Puma hooker Eusebio Guinazu was penalised at the breakdown.
The Pumas eventually managed to get on the board in the 21st minute – a great show-and-go by flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez and a long floating pass putting Juan Imhoff into space and over in the left corner. Sanchez added the conversion as the visitors took the lead – 7-6.
However, another breakdown penalty soon after the restart allowed Allan to regain the lead for the home team – 9-7.
Seven minutes before the break Sanchez regained the lead with a penalty that came after the Italians were penalised for going off their feet at the tackle.
Allan was short with a penalty attempt in the 38th minute and another in the 40th minute, as the Pumas held onto their one-point lead at the break.
The Italians' rookie flyhalf missed his first shot at goal in the second half as well, his fourth miss out of seven attempts.
Sanchez continued his superb kicking form when he slotted a penalty, for a breakdown offence, in the 54th minute to make it 13-9.
The Pumas were reduced to 14 men as the match moved into the final quarter, when prop Marcos Ayerza was sent to the sin bin for repeated collapses of the maul.
And after another penalty soon afterwards Allan launched a cross-field kick that was controlled by no-one in particular, with referee Chris Pollock ruling that Michele Campagnaro had in fact grounded the ball – but not before several looks by the TMO, who seemed hesitant to award the try after Pollock had suggested the big-screen on the stadium's replays gave him the evidence he was looking for. Allan could not add the extras, leaving the home team just one point ahead – 14-13.
Sanchez, who missed a long-range shot at goal in the 65th minute, slotted his third penalty in the 68th – as the visitors regained the lead, 16-14.
And the Argentinean flyhalf made it a five-point (19-14) game with six minutes remaining on the clock when he landed a sweetly-struck drop-goal.
Now the Pumas were in their element, slowing the game down to a crawl and defending like demons.
And they hung on as the ever-increasing desperation of the home team resulted in a string of errors in the final minutes.
Man of the match: Sergio Parisse, as always, was one of Italy's most productive players. Prop Martin Castrogiovanni injected himself into the game early on with a number of turnovers at the breakdown, despite his bulk performing very much like an openside flank. He also made a number of crucial tackles, but was also penalised at a couple of scrums. Juan Imhoff looked dangerous with ball in hand and produced the game's first try, made a number of clean breaks and his defence was near flawless. However, the creative spark in the Pumas team was flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez. Not only did he set up the first try of the match, but varied his game well and produced a near flawless kicking game. Then he also slotted the match-clinching drop-goal six minutes from time.
Moment of the match: Nicolas Sanchez's show-and-go, which resulted in Juan Imhoff's try at the end of the first quarter, showed that there were some creative skills in the game. Then there was the try by Michele Campagnaro in the 62nd minute – coming from a cross-field kick by Tommaso Allan – which was significant for a couple reasons. First of all it regained the lead for the home team at a crucial stage in the match, but it also showed up the flaws in a system that allows a referee to make up his own mind based on what he saw on a stadium screen, when the TMO was hesitant to award the score. However, our award goes to the well-timed and sweetly-struck drop-goal of Argentinean flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez in the 74th minute.
Villain: New Zealand referee Chris Pollock was desperate to win this award, as he guessed his way through the game – after starting by awarding a free kick for a skew throw in the first line-out of the match. His communication was also not very good, often leaving the players confused about what his rulings were.
Pens: Allan 3
Pens: Sanchez 3
Yellow card: Marcos Ayerza (Argentina, 61 – repeated infringements, collapsing a maul)
Italy: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Giovambattista Venditti, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Canale, 11 Tommaso Iannone, 10 Tommaso Allan, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (captain), 7 Robert Barbieri, 6 Alessandro Zanni, 5 Valerio Bernabo, 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matias Aguero, 18 Lorenzo Cittadini, 19 Marco Bortolami, 20 Joshua Furno, 21 Tobias Botes, 22 Luciano Orquera, 23 Tommaso Benvenuti.
Argentina: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Lucas González Amorosino, 13 Horacio Agulla, 12 Gabriel Ascárate, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Benjamín Macome, 7 Julio Farías Cabello, 6 Juan Manuel Leguizamón (captain), 5 Mariano Galarza, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Maximiliano Bustos, 2 Eusebio Guiñazú, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Santiago Iglesias Valdez, 17 Nahuel Lobo, 18 Matías Díaz, 19 Tomás Lavanini, 20 Pablo Matera, 21 Tomás Cubelli, 22 Javier Rojas, 23 Santiago Cordero.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), JP Doyle (England)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)