Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024
Jordan equalled fellow All Blacks Julian Savea and Jonah Lomu and South Africa’s Bryan Habana in scoring eight tries at a single World Cup

Death, taxes and the All Blacks.

On nights like this, New Zealand are inevitable.

You might kid yourself. Just for a moment. As Julian Montoya faces down the haka, as Emiliano Boffelli knocks over the first points, as the crowd roar an Argentine rumble downfield or Ardie Savea is knocked backwards, there may be a flicker of belief in the darkness.

This might be the exception, you think. You might be watching France at Twickenham in 1999 or in Cardiff in 2007. Even England in Yokohama in 2019. One of those vanishingly rare times that the underdogs prevail over Test rugby’s top dogs when it really matters.

You allow yourself to believe that an alternative outcome is possible. Until you don’t. Or rather they don’t.

That moment arrived in the 33rd minute at the Stade de France.

Argentina, 12-3 down, had backed New Zealand up to the cliff edge, with their toes on their tryline in defence.

Facundo Isa crashed into a wall in search of the vital final few inches of territory. Montoya followed. Neither found it. Sensing the significance of the moment, the All Blacks gritted teeth, dug in heels and held out.

Argentina took three points, rather than seven. New Zealand duly went back down the other end and took something far more valuable.

Richie Mo’unga kicked an almost immediate penalty in reply, Shannon Frizell walked in a try with the final play of the half and, together, they stole Argentina’s fight, soul and belief.

As they trudged back down the tunnel 20-6 adrift, the Pumas knew, the All Blacks knew and the 80,000 fans knew. Rugby was repeating one of its favourite stories.

The All Blacks are the most reliable machine in international men’s rugby. Even allowing for some wobbles between this World Cup and the last, they still clock an all-time winning percentage north of 75%.

Every opponent comes into a meeting with New Zealand weighed down by a lop-sided losing record. They have to try and ignore a prophecy waiting to be fulfilled.

That’s the history. The reality on the pitch is hard to pin down. What is the strange chloroform that knocks out their opponents?

There isn’t the blood and thunder of South Africa, the champagne and swagger of France or the intricacies of Ireland. Instead New Zealand inflict defeat by a thousand cuts.

Individual polished skills and well-judged decisions quickly accumulate into a torrent and it takes a better team than Argentina to avoid being blasted off their path.

Passages of play told the tale of the match. The spotless catch-pass from Sam Cane that sent Mark Telea racing into open space down one wing, before Sam Whitelock dropped a ball out the back to help his team out-flank Argentina down the other and put Jordie Barrett in for a try.

When Barrett, under pressure in the second half as the Argentine defence rushed up, swivelled and snapped a cross-field kick to expose an out-of-position Mateo Carreras.

Or when Will Jordan weighted a chip over a final tackler to perfection to score his third try of the night and a record-equalling eighth at a single Rugby World Cup tournament.

By then it had long since been over as a contest. Any hope that Argentina could repeat their landmark wins of 2020 and 2022 had disintegrated on contact with this fit and focused version of the All Blacks.

Instead the Pumas narrowly avoided a record of their own. Their 38-point losing margin was only five fewer than the heaviest semi-final defeat set when New Zealand – who else? – thrashed Wales in the inaugural 1987 event.

Emiliano Boffelli’s boot delivered Argentina’s only points with penalties in the 5th and 35th minutes

The stadium tannoy blurted out bits of the Seven Nation Army bassline and DJ Otzi’s Europop to try and revive the atmosphere in the second half. The crowd contributed La Marseillaise and a Mexican wave in turn.

The All Blacks, with one eye on a final against either South Africa or England, withdrew the likes of Cane, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett from the fray.

And it ended in fitting style. Argentina, having been awarded a penalty in their own half and a final chance to hunt a consolation score, kicked for field position.

Fly-half Mo’unga , impressive throughout, was in the right place once more, catching the undercooked punt and dropping it on to his own boot and into touch to prompt the final whistle.

Too smart, too savvy, too good.

“We are in a good spot, in the final, exactly where we wanted to be,” said captain Cane afterwards.

There was nothing inevitable about last week against Ireland. There will be nothing inevitable about next weekend against either South Africa or England.

But, with this tournament’s two-tier draw, against an Argentina well short of their class, New Zealand could rely on old certainties in the semi-finals.

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