Thursday 18 January 2018

Pumas go for the jugular to tear struggling Wales apart

Wales 12
Argentina 26

Mike Averis at the Millennium Stadium

With Welsh rugby riven by wrangling over the financial problems of its regions and continuing to lose its national treasures to the highest bidder, they suffered the indignity of being outplayed here by a side, in theory at least, ranked two places below them in the world.

Previously the collective will of the national team, plus no little skill at the World Cup and in the Six Nations has helped paper over at least some of the cracks in the Welsh fabric, but the champions of Europe were outplayed almost from the off by a side which last won in Cardiff 11 years ago.

The hosts were undone by two tries and 17 points early in the second half, but there was hardly an aspect of the game in which Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and his team came second best.

After their unhappy summer, Wales have now lost their last four matches, losing any chance of a top-four world ranking ahead of next month's draw for the 2015 World Cup. It was also a poor start for their stand-in coach Rob Howley, who now has to pull his side together before Samoa come calling on Friday. After that, Howley will hand the reins back to his boss, Warren Gatland, for the "big two" -- New Zealand and then Australia.

Argentina arrived in Cardiff after a useful if unspectacular debut in the Rugby Championship looking for their first win in four visits, but with a team minus a few of Santiago Phelan's first choices. He may have persuaded Stade Francais to release Felipe Contepomi -- for what turned out to be a brief appearance -- but failed to prise either of the Marcelos, centre Bosch and prop Kodela, away from Biarritz and Wales might have to learn a few things from the Pumas' head coach about going cap in hand to the French clubs begging for the release of players.

Nonetheless, a draw with South Africa and decent performances against Australia had left Argentina far less rusty than on previous autumn visits and within two minutes Marcos Ayerza had won the first of his tangles with the Welsh front row new boy Aaron Jarvis, and a minute later Contepomi had put them three points ahead after a high tackle by Ian Evans.

It turned out to be about the last thing Contepomi did, before being carried off on a stretcher in the 13th minute having attempted to tackle George North.

By then, Jarvis won the second scrum encounter and Leigh Halfpenny put Wales level, Nicolas Sanchez had restored the lead with a snatched drop goal and Halfpenny had landed a second penalty. With wing Juan Imhoff almost chipping into the path of Contepomi's replacement, Joaquin Tuculet, and Sanchez missing with another attempted drop, it was a lively opening quarter with the casualty list about to grow.

Jamie Roberts, who last week confirmed that he was leaving Cardiff presumably for France and probably Racing Metro, was flat on the turf for two minutes after a mighty midfield collision and replaced by James Hook, although Halfpenny kept the kicking duties, edging Wales ahead for the first time on 25 minutes.

And that is the way it remained until half-time, although second-row Julio Farias Cabello caused a few Argentinian hearts to flutter when he threw an intercept pass directly at Alex Cuthbert. There were also early suggestions that the presence of Hook in midfield was adding a touch of adventure and gradually bringing the two huge Welsh wings into the game. It turned out to be a false dawn.

With Bosch missing and Contepomi injured, the kicking duties devolved down to Sanchez, who made a horrible mess of two very kickable penalties within three minutes of the restart and Argentina were about to lose another of their playmakers, Juan Martin Hernandez. Worse, the Racing Metro full-back was barely off the field when Halfpenny banged over his fourth penalty of the afternoon.

But that was they end of their bad luck. First Sanchez chipped his second drop kick of the afternoon and then the Pumas captain conjured something out of nothing for his left wing Imhoof. The move appeared to have broken down when the huge arms of Toby Faletau grabbed Lobbe, but the Toulon flanker still managed to slip his pass away and Imhoff was home without a finger laid on him. Sanchez added the conversion and then Welsh hearts really hit rock bottom four minutes later.

This time it was the other Argentina winger, Gonzalao Camacho, now a man of Devon with Exeter, and it took a diving one-handed catch to even put him in with a chance. In fact with Halfpenny covering and Hook homing in, it looked as though the wing's path to the right corner was covered until the television official had a good look and ruled that the wing's legs were still in the air when he reached out and over the line.

By then everything was going Argentina's way, Sanchez even managing to land his first penalty of the afternoon.

For Wales there was just a few desperate minutes to save face, but as the clock ran down Scott Williams was stopped a couple of yards short and Rob McCusker ran into a blue wall with two men outside him.

Scorers -- Wales: Halfpenny 4 pens. Argentina: Imhoff, Camacho tries; Sanchez 2 d-gs, 1 pen, 2 cons; Contepomi 1 pen

Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts (J Hook 23), G North; R Priestland, T Knoyle (M Phillips 56); G Jenkins (R Bevington 68), M Rees (R Hibbard 60), A Jarvis (P James 60); A-Wyn Jones (R McCusker 39), I Evans; J Turnbull, S Warburton (c) (J Tipuric 70), T Faletau

Argentina: JM Hernandez (H Agulla 45); G Camacho, G Tiesi, F Contepomi (J Tuculet 13), J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo (N Vergallo 66); M Ayerza (B Postiglioni 78, E Guinazu (A Creevy 48), J Figallo (J Gomez 66); M Carizza, J Farias Cabello (T Vallejos Cinalli 64); L Senatore (T Leonardi 56), JM Leguizamon, JM Fernandez Lobbe (c) Referee: R Poite (France)

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