Sour ending for Wallabies

Ewen McKenzie (AFP)
Ewen McKenzie (AFP)

Melbourne - A night that began with a mangled version of the Australian national anthem ended fittingly on a sour note for the Wallabies as they crashed to their first loss to Argentina in 17 years in Mendoza on Saturday.

There were chuckles among the Wallabies as they lined up at the Malvinas Argentinas stadium, where singer Marcelo Zelada battled through "Advance Australia Fair" with impressive operatic flair but an almost complete ignorance of the words.

Eighty minutes of rugby later, the music had stopped for the tourists as they trudged off field with a 21-17 loss to close the tournament following another public humiliation for their embattled forward pack.

Though the defeat changed little in the final standings for the third-placed Wallabies, it was another subtle shift in the balance of power in southern hemisphere rugby following South Africa's impressive defeat of the All Blacks in Johannesburg earlier on Saturday.

The All Blacks had sealed a hat-trick of titles with the previous week's defeat of the Pumas and deservedly maintain their status as the world's stand-out team.

English referee Wayne Barnes played a part in the 27-25 outcome at Ellis Park by awarding a tough penalty and Pat Lambie did the rest with a long bomb from over the halfway line with a little more than a minute remaining.

But in upsetting a team at the peak of its powers and on a 22-game unbeaten run, Heyneke Meyer's Springboks showed they have closed the gap, while providing a timely reminder before next year's World Cup that the men in black are human.

"It would have been interesting if we hadn't given away the penalty, which way it would have gone," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen told reporters.

"But we've got no excuses. We've been beaten by a team who played better than us by a little bit today."

Formerly a one-dimensional outfit content to rely on territory and set-piece dominance, the Springboks have become more versatile under Meyer, who has gradually refined them into a potent attacking unit comfortable with risk-taking.

A confident South Africa will be itching to further unleash their firepower on northern hemisphere sides next month and give players like impressive rookie flyhalf Handré Pollard, who scored a brace of tries against the All Blacks, further Tests before the global showpiece in England.

Argentina will also head north with renewed belief after finally breaking their duck against the southern hemisphere powers at the 18th attempt in the Rugby Championship.

Though Australia endured a torrid lead-up to the match, with key players concussed and the camp distracted by an integrity probe into flyhalf Kurtley Beale, the Wallabies were well beaten by a side that finally showed the patience to score after a multi-phase attack and the composure to protect a winning position.

Out of all four teams in the Rugby Championship, Australia alone may be hearing alarm bells a year out from the World Cup.

No amount of backline flair from the likes of Israel Folau and impressive centre Tevita Kuridrani could paper over the cracks of their forward pack, who were bullied by their Pumas counterparts in an excruciating mismatch.

The Wallabies have other problems, Beale's position in the team not least among them, but coach Ewen McKenzie, a former Test prop, will be frantic to find a solution to strengthen the tight five.

Unfortunately, two weeks to prepare for a third and final Bledisloe Cup match against a world champion New Zealand side desperate to atone offers very little room to manoeuvre.

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