BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - New Zealand's first half struggles against a fired-up Argentina in La Plata on Saturday may serve as a warning to the All Blacks going into their Rugby Championship decider against South Africa next weekend.
The All Blacks spent most of the opening period camped inside their own half as the Pumas put them under intense pressure, but they weathered the storm to lead 11-9 at the break before running out 33-15 winners.
South Africa (18) are five points behind Zealand (23) in second place and need a bonus-point victory by more than seven points in Johannesburg to claim the title next Saturday.
The Springboks have a +97 points differential compared to New Zealand's +76 but face a side riding an 11-game winning streak in the competition since it was expanded to four teams last year.
South Africa can be expected to take the game to New Zealand in much the same way as they did in the first half when they beat Australia 28-8 earlier on Saturday, scoring 23 of their points before the interval.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen was pleased with what he saw in the second half while putting his team's disjointed first half down to improvements in Argentina's game.
"I wasn't that pleased with the first half. I thought we lacked urgency, we lacked the ability to control the game whenever we had the ball, and our scrum was under pressure. We were untidy with our game," he told reporters.
"In the second half, the forwards came out and showed the urgency we expect from an All Blacks pack," he added.
"They started to get control of the game and delivered better ball so we could have moments where we could keep the ball for a reasonable amount of phases.
"We also kicked a lot better in the second half... (we) put the ball right on the spot and had (Argentina) under pressure."
All the early pressure, however, came from the Pumas and only a breakaway try by wing Julian Savea denied Argentina a halftime lead.
"We are prepared for a very physical game (in South Africa) and we'll take lessons from tonight, from the pressure Argentina put us under," All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said.
"For some time now we've had a lot of respect for Argentine rugby and what we've seen over the last two years coming into this competition against probably three of the top four or five sides in the world... they're getting better," Hansen added.
"This year, they have improved immensely from last year. They have understood they can't just play the same team every week. Last year, they may have fallen into the trap of not having enough depth."
Asked whether he was saving players for the decider in South Africa with the replacements he made, some quite early in the second half, Hansen said: "This match was not about next week, it was about today, we had little left in the tank.
"We've got to give Argentina a fair bit of credit, It was a tough game with a lot of running. I believe we're a fit side with a bench that goes quite deep and I'm happy to have faith in them."
Editing by John O'Brien