MENDOZA, Argentina (AP) — Australia without inspirational captain Michael Hooper overcame and overwhelmed fired-up host Argentina 41-26 in their Rugby Championship opener on Saturday.
The comeback win was soured with a likely ruptured Achilles injury for flyhalf Quade Cooper which may cruel the playmaker's prospects of taking part in next year's World Cup. It continued a wretched run of injuries for the Wallabies which had also seen center Samu Kerevi suffer a serious knee injury in the lead up to the match, along with Hooper's late withdrawal.
The Wallabies trailed until the 65th minute. They led for the first time when replacement flyhalf Reece Hodge kicked a penalty for 27-26 while Argentina lock Matias Alemanno was in the sin-bin.
His absence helped propel the Wallabies' comeback from 26-17 down as they racked up the last 24 points in the last 20-odd minutes.
The Australian pack took hold of a scrappy match by retaining the ball and turning the pressure on the Pumas, whose discipline fell apart. After conceding only three penalties in the first half, Argentina gave away 11 in the second and any chance of regaining momentum.
Over the last quarter, Alemanno conceded a penalty try and yellow card, Hodge kicked his penalty and converted tries by Folau Fainga'a — their bonus-point fourth — and Len Ikitau.
Australia's superb record against the Pumas — unbeaten since 2018 and unbeaten in Argentina since 2014 — was in doubt after Hooper withdrew from the squad 24 hours beforehand after revealing his mindset wasn't right. He was heading home with first-choice hooker Dave Porecki, who was concussed in training.
“We really wanted to put in an effort that our fans can be proud of but also our captain, Hoops, can be proud of,” stand-in skipper James Slipper said. “We were thinking about him all day and we were playing for him tonight.”
They were already without their best back, Kerevi, then veteran playmaker Cooper limped off in the second half with an apparent Achilles injury which is likely to sideline him for a year if confirmed.
But their fill-ins all shone, notably flanker Fraser McReight, who capped his first test start with a try.
The first half was back and forth and scrappy, as both teams took their one and only real try chances.
Argentina was over after only six minutes from lineout ball. An inside pass from srumhalf Tomas Cubelli to wing Emiliano Boffelli opened up the Australians, and another inside pass from flyhalf Santiago Carreras to No. 8 Pablo Matera put him clear and over the tryline.
Boffelli and Cooper traded goalkicks without missing in the half, and midway through the Wallabies scored their try, also from lineout ball.
Cooper delayed his pass for right wing Jordan Petaia to bust pass two defenders on the angle.
But the Wallabies were error-prone and Boffelli kicked Argentina to a 19-10 halftime lead.
As the Wallabies turned the heat up in the second half, Cooper hurt his lower left leg merely stepping off it and Hodge came in without missing a beat.
McReight, playing his first test in a year, pulled them back after breaking off a lineout maul with a helpful carry from new cap Jed Holloway.
The Pumas restored the nine-point lead when fullback Juan Cruz Mallia counterattacked from deep and Matera sent in fellow back-rower Juan Martin Gonzalez. But that was against the run of play.
Alemanno collapsed another Wallabies lineout maul and paid the price. Hodge then kicked the visitors in front and their confidence was such that, with another close-range penalty, they went for the attacking lineout instead. The gamble paid off when Fainga'a blew over.
Boffelli finally missed a goalkick — from halfway — at his seventh attempt as the beaten Pumas vainly sought a losing bonus point, and a helter-skelter ending finished with Ikitau scoring a converted try.
They move to San Juan next week for round two.
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