Argentina Reaches Rugby World Cup Semifinals after Coming Back Twice to Beat Wales

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli celebrates with supporters at the end of the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match between Wales and Argentina at the Stade de Marseille in Marseille, France, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023.

MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Argentina’s rugby team doesn’t have a totemic figure like Lionel Messi to bind it like the national soccer team did when it was winning the soccer World Cup less than a year ago.

What the rugby Pumas do have is a collective doggedness that lies dormant too often but erupts when it is least expected.

That Pumas passion propelled them into the Rugby World Cup semifinals on Saturday when they were 12 minutes away from losing to Wales.

They came from behind twice to win 29-17 in a raucous Stade Velodrome, where the Pumas’ campaign started with a baffling loss to 14-man England.

“We know it is not going to be perfect; life is not perfect,” Pumas captain Julian Montoya said. “It’s how you embrace the moment and fight for each other.

“Two more weeks with this team (in the knockout stage). I don’t want this to end ever. We need to be better, to be clinical in a lot of things. I know I can be more demanding but I am very proud of this team.”

They are going to Paris for the first time in the tournament for their first semifinal since 2015 next Friday against three-time champion New Zealand, which knocked out top-ranked Ireland 28-24 later Saturday.

Wales built its campaign around defense and being conditioned to play for 80 minutes. But just when it needed to hold on for a little longer, it conceded two game-ending tries to Pumas replacements Joel Sclavi and Nicolas Sanchez.

In between those scores, Wales could have won the match in the 74th minute when zippy wing Louis Rees-Zammit was diving into the left corner but Matias Moroni, who was substituted into the game after half an hour, pulled off a quarterfinal-saving tackle.

“The (fight) comes from our personality and the way that we train,” Montoya said. “Nothing has been too easy for us for the last couple of years. We trust each other. We are a very tight group. I know you just see the 15 on the pitch or the 23, but there is a group of people behind us who are unbelievable. They work day and night. We are the fortunate guys who wear the jersey.”

Argentina and Wales came to France with few expectations and fought their way out of mediocre pools to meet in the Rugby World Cup knockout stage for the first time. Their quarterfinal didn’t come alive until the end of the first half.

Wales was 10-0 up after 21 minutes thanks to a try by retiring flyhalf Dan Biggar, who converted and added a penalty.

Also by then, referee Jaco Peyper hurt his Achilles and was replaced by Karl Dickson.

Biggar hooked his next penalty attempt and the Pumas were given more hope by Wales losing three consecutive lineouts, two of them overthrows.

The Pumas turned them into pressure and Wales succumbed. A couple of silky breaks by flyhalf Santiago Carreras and a silly off-the-ball shoulder tackle by Wales’ Josh Adams gave Pumas sharpshooter Emiliano Boffelli two easy penalties to slot at the end of the half.

The Pumas trailed only 10-6 at the interval, during which Wales hooker Ryan Elias was dropped.

“We spoke about how important discipline was and not giving them anything,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “That allowed them to stay in the game.”

Argentina’s surge ahead to 12-10 came from Boffelli’s third and fourth penalties, the last of which was a stunner from 55 meters out. They led for the first time in the 49th.

Wales retook the lead in the 57th out of nothing when replacement scrumhalf Tomos Williams dummied off an unguarded ruck and flew away. Biggar’s extras made it 17-12.

The physicality of Argentina’s forwards led by Facundo Isa forced Wales to replace backs Liam Williams and Nick Tompkins and they held out two lineout mauls but not a third from which new prop Sclavi scored. Boffelli’s conversion put them in front 19-17 with 11 minutes to go.

A Rio Dyer break with Tomos Williams in support gave Rees-Zammit his chance to win the match for Wales in the 77th, but Moroni came from nowhere to tackle him into touch. Moroni was one of nine Pumas survivors from the 2015 quarterfinal win over Ireland.

Sanchez then intercepted opposite Sam Costelow and scooted 50 meters to secure victory with three minutes to go.

“At the start of the campaign,” Wales captain Jac Morgan said, “not many people thought we’d get out of the group, and we came into this game as favorites. Full credit to Argentina, they left everything out there as did we, but our accuracy let us down a bit.

“We’ll be here again and be better.”