MARSEILLE: Argentina rode a wave of incredible fan support into the Rugby World Cup semifinals for the third time on Saturday, overcoming a 10-0 deficit to eventually overwhelm Wales 29-17 with late tries by replacements Joel Sclavi and Nicolas Sanchez.
In a bruising, fluctuating match played against a deafening backdrop, Wales deservedly led after a Dan Biggar try but The Pumas chipped back with a series of Emiliano Boffelli penalties to take the lead soon after the break.
A Tomos Williams try briefly restored Wales’s lead but there was a sense of inevitability about Argentina’s emphatic response as they finished on top amid a raucous sea of blue.
It was a remarkable turnaround for Argentina in the same ground where they were brushed aside by England in their opening pool match five weeks ago, and they will play either Ireland or New Zealand, who meet in Paris later, next week.
“We like to be a team that fights for everything,” Argentina captain Julian Montoya said. “It’s how you embrace the moment and fight for each other. Two more weeks with this team. I don’t want this to end, ever.”
It was tough for Wales, who had won all four of their group matches and had high hopes of a third semifinal in four tournaments, but they can have no complaints as their early control completely disappeared. They scored the opening try after 14 minutes as George North fed a rampaging Gareth Davies, who then sent Biggar in under the posts.
It was almost all Wales for the next 20 minutes but they only managed to add the conversion and a Biggar penalty. The Pumas hit back at the end of the half with two Boffelli penalties to make it 10-6 at the break, though Wales fans were unhappy at another controversial TMO intervention.
Original referee Jaco Peyper suffered an injury and was replaced by Karl Dickson, who rightly penalised Josh Adams for a needless check on Tomas Cubelli, but was not shown replays of a subsequent assault by an Argentine that may well have reversed the decision.
Another Boffelli penalty closed the gap to within a point at the start of the second half before he comfortably banged over another from inside his own half to put the Pumas 12-10 ahead.
The Argentine fans ramped up the volume even more, creating a magnificent atmosphere that visibly lifted their men as Wales struggled to regain any sort of foothold.
However, the Welsh exploded back into the lead with their first attack of the half after 56 minutes as replacement scrum-half Williams threw a dummy that the entire Pumas defence bought, allowing him to scamper through from the back of a ruck.
It proved a rare moment of action in the Argentine half though, as the Pumas dominated the next 15 minutes, threatening with a series of lineout drives that culminated in the massive Sclavi forcing his way over and Boffelli converting to reclaim the lead at 19-17 with 10 minutes to go.
Wales finally got going again but a brilliant diving tackle by Matias Moroni denied Louis Rees-Zammit in the corner, which proved to be a crucial intervention.
As Wales pressed desperately in the final minutes, Sanchez picked off Sam Costelow for a halfway-line interception and raced in under the posts. Boffelli joyously converted and Sanchez polished it off with a penalty to send the Pumas to Paris.
Coach Michael Cheika said that the incredible physical preparation his players put in was key to how they hung in and then surged back to take control.
“I think that hard work showed at the end of the game today, they wanted to fight for it, they wanted to earn it,” he said.
“We were behind so it takes a bit of leg work. We made some mistakes, Wales were tactically smart and we had to organise but what’s important is to stay in the game and keep playing.”