There was a hat-trick from the Wallaby wing Adam Ashley-Cooper but the man in gold worth his weight in gold was the No 8 David Pocock, the boss of the breakdown. And there was plenty to snaffle, as Argentina were in full unreconstructed mood, running from anywhere, everywhere, gifting Australia two tries within nine minutes, a monumental deficit from which to recover. It was as if the watching Diego Maradona had infused his countrymen with his own wacky outlook on life.
The Pumas’ only exit strategy in that wild opening looked to be to exit the semi-final as fast as possible. But gather themselves they did, taking the crowd to its bosom along the way with the verve and nerve of their play, a display of heart and soul as much as it was of muscle and bone. It was breathless, beguiling, bewildering. Twickenham may never rediscover its staid old self.
The glow of satisfaction from the All Blacks head coach, Steve Hansen, watching from the team hotel must have lit up the Weybridge night air for these two teams smashed each other from first whistle to last, never wilting, the pace never waning, three front-line Pumas (the wing Juan Imhoff, centre Juan Martín Hernández and the captain, Agustín Creevy) hobbled off, Australia’s Matt Giteau, too, with a minor groin niggle, and the Wallabies had to drain every last drop of their energy tank to stem a magnificent Pumas rally in the second half. That one-day differential in rest and recovery could prove critical.
Small wonder that several Pumas slumped to the turf as the referee Wayne Barnes brought a compelling afternoon to a close. Up in the coaches’ box, Daniel Hourcade was in tears. He was not the only one. We all were crying for Argentina.
Barnes was jeered on several occasions, notably when giving a harshly adjudged yellow card to the Pumas lock Tomás Lavanini in the 25th minute, Ashley-Cooper notching his second in his absence. There was also a suspect forward pass for the last of Ashley-Cooper’s tries. At least Barnes had the decency to shake hands and walk off at the final whistle.
Once again, though, it is Australia who have held a feisty, animated opponent at bay. This side score tries, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what pressure they are under they find a way to the try-line. Even if the naive, pumped-up opening from Argentina offered them easy early pickings, they nonetheless had to take those chances. True, one was a gimme, an intercept for Rob Simmons, the lock registering the fastest try of this World Cup with a touchdown in 68 seconds but the second, Ashley-Cooper’s first, owed so much to the looping cut-out pass from Bernard Foley to the right flank. Foley once again showed his value, not so much with the boot but with his tackling. There were several moments when his clawback defence saved the day.
This was the first time since that emphatic victory over England that back-rowers, Michael Hooper and Pocock, had been reunited, injury and suspension breaking up the double-act. They showed their worth once again, Pocock in particular. The 27-year-old passed a late fitness test on a calf injury. Pocock had won two turnovers in the blink of an eye, Argentina playing into his hands with the brazen if bonkers nature of their pay, four from 10 Wallaby turnovers down to Pocock’s name by the end. The All Blacks will have taken note.
He was ably supported by the tearaway Hooper, comrades-in-arms that so troubled New Zealand when Australia won in Sydney. And for those two to flourish there has to be an old slugger doing the grunt, and that duty was ably filled by the bearded behemoth, Scott Fardy, who grows in stature with each passing game.
There are fault lines to be exposed in Australia’s game, however, as their recent opponents have proved. Here it was the scrum that resorted to its familiar wobbly self with loosehead, James Slipper, fortunate not to get a yellow card for repeated collapse, saved in the end when hauled off in the second-half.
But on they go, renewed and invigorated by the coaching of Michael Cheika.
They were 14-3 to the good within nine minutes, Pumas fly-half, Nicolás Sánchez, throwing the pass latched on to by Simmons, then Imhoff selling himself by flying up in defence leaving a gap on the right wing for Ashley-Cooper to profit. Sánchez landed an early penalty and two more kept his side in touch at the break. With two more in the bag early in the second-half, nerve ends of Wallaby supporters began to fray at 22-15.
Wave after wave of blue-and-white bore down, wave after wave was somehow resisted. Then with eight minutes came a lacerating break from Drew Mitchell that took him past five defenders, finally felled only to fling the ball, perhaps forward, to Ashley-Cooper.
Argentina were broken. So, too, hearts of the romantics. But this splendid 2015 Rugby World Cup has got the finale it deserves.