BUENOS AIRES: South Africa brushed aside a series of scandals during the week to storm to the top of the Rugby Championship with a bonus point 36-20 win over Argentina on Saturday.
Tries from scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse, centre Damian De Allende, a brace from hooker Malcolm Marx and a penalty try proved enough to take the Boks above New Zealand on head-to-head record with one round of matches left.
Argentina remain five points back alongside Australia and still with a theoretical chance of winning the tournament.
But they paid for a high penalty count, numerous handling errors and poor discipline that saw half-backs Santiago Carreras and Gonzalo Bertranou sin-binned in the first half.
South Africa also had two players yellow carded, but a strong first 40 and a powerful finish proved enough.
It had been a difficult build up for the Springboks with South African Rugby releasing a statement hours before kick-off in Buenos Aires denouncing “distracting and destabilising” media reports.
A South African website had claimed a Sunday newspaper would be publishing an “explosive report” into drug taking by Springbok players, which SA Rugby denied.
This came hot on the heels of fly-half Elton Jantjies and a team dietician being sent home from Argentina after a newspaper reported they were having an affair.
“The whole week has been tough, I won’t lie about it, but the people that support us have been behind us,” said South Africa captain Siya Kolisi.
“This is honestly one of the most pressure experiences I’ve had coming to Argentina.
“I’m proud of how the boys just pulled together and fought to the end.”
The ugly headlines had no adverse affect on the pitch, though, as South Africa dominated the first period.
The unflappable Emiliano Boffelli knocked over the first penalty of the game for Argentina on nine minutes but moments later Damian Willemse replied for the visitors.
Both kickers then missed their second efforts from close to the halfway line, but after that it was one-way traffic.
The first try came on 22 minutes as South Africa created space down the right for wing Canan Moodie.
Although Carreras stopped him with a try saving tackle, the Argentine fly-half then jumped up from an offside position to put in another crucial block to hold up Hendrikse over the line.
New Zealander referee James Doleman had no option but to award a penalty try and send Carreras to the sinbin.
A second Boffelli penalty kept the Pumas in touch but the Springboks soon made the extra man count as Hendrikse sold a dummy before strolling in under the posts, Willemse kicking the extras.
Argentina’s high penalty count was gifting South Africa good field position and ramping up the pressure on the 14 men.
From a driving maul, Marx was powered over by his pack, although Willemse missed the extras.
Disjointed Argentina botched their own five-metre line-out but it was in defence that they faced their main problems.
Scrum-half Bertranou was yellow carded and Lood de Jager bulldozed over for what would have been a fourth South Africa try, only for Doleman to rule there was a knock-on in the build-up as the Boks led 22-6 at half-time.
Argentina came out fired up in the second half after a stern talk from Australian coach Michael Cheika.
“The message was very simple: we trained in the style of rugby we want to play and we didn’t see that in the first half,” said Cheika.
“In the second half we started to play the way we train.”
The tide appeared to be turning in their favour when Willie le Roux was sent to the bin after a string of South African infringements.
And so it proved as Argentina were awarded a penalty try when Kwagga Smith, who was also shown a yellow card, tackled Tomas Cubelli around the neck as he stretched for the line.
Almost immediately, Matias Moroni made a stunning break though the heart of the Springbok defence to dot down under the posts and Boffelli’s conversion made it a two-point game, with South Africa still down to 14 men.
But De Allende powered through two tackles to score from close range and Marx benefitted from tired tackling to score in the corner as South Africa extinguished Argentine hopes.