SALTA, Argentina (AP) — South Africa survived a huge scare from Argentina to sneak a 33-31 win in the Rugby Championship on Saturday with a penalty by replacement flyhalf Morne Steyn three minutes from the end.
Smashed in the scrums and often outplayed out wide, a shaky South Africa came back from 28-16 down with two late tries and Steyn's clinching kick in a desperate 20 minute spell at the end.
Argentina was rampant at times in the northern city of Salta and came so close to two major pieces of history: Its first win in the southern hemisphere competition and first win ever over the two-time world champion Springboks in 19 tests over 20 years.
The Pumas momentarily recovered from South Africa's late charge and center Marcelo Bosch thumped over a 52-meter penalty to edge them ahead again 31-30 before Steyn won it.
"I'll say it again, this Argentinian team, they're a team on the up," South Africa captain Jean de Villiers said. "They're getting better and better and credit must go to the way they played. They played incredibly well."
De Villiers called his team's unconvincing show "a work in progress."
"At this stage, we'll just take the win," he said.
No. 2-ranked South Africa had been warned when Argentina's forwards surprisingly dominated the Boks in the opening round of the championship last week in Pretoria before going down 13-6.
In the rematch in Salta, Argentina looked stronger again and scored the first try through left wing Manuel Montero in the 26th minute. The home team added two more in the space of five minutes early in the second to rock the Springboks in front of a boisterous crowd at Estadio Padre Ernesto Martearena.
Replacement scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli bounced off two big South African forwards to go over in the 47th and fullback Joaquin Tuculet raced into the left corner soon after. The noise from the crowd was so loud that referee Steve Walsh often struggled to communicate with his fellow match officials.
South Africa had taken a 16-13 halftime lead that was barely deserved and only came through a breakaway try by wing Bryan Habana, who extended his South African record to 56 tries in his 99th test as he chased down a hack ahead from scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.
Argentina maintained its intensity at the start of the second and its complete dominance over a Springboks front five that prides itself on its strength was evident when it marched the South Africans back 10 meters in one scrum. That led South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer to replace both his props.
Facing a 12-point deficit, South Africa dragged itself back as Hendricks slammed the ball down on the tryline in the right corner to start the fightback. Replacement loose forward Coetzee, who changed the momentum for South Africa, bulldozed over at the back of a rolling maul in the 69th for the lead.
"They knew how to take advantage of some bad moments from us and we couldn't figure out how to win the game," Argentina captain Agustin Creevy said. "Up by 12, we said we should play intelligent rugby, but they came out strong and we made some mistakes.
"Closing games is always a psychological issue," he added.
Steyn, also a second-half replacement, still needed to land his late match-winning kick after Argentina had edged ahead again when Bosch hammered over a long-range shot. Argentina was minutes away from a breakthrough win in the competition before conceding a late penalty that set up Steyn.
Argentina, ranked No. 12 in the world, still has not won in 14 games in the Rugby Championship.
South Africa's two narrow victories over Argentina gave it the lead in the four-nation tournament standings but with much bigger challenges to come against Australia and world champion New Zealand. South Africa has eight points from two games. New Zealand has seven after hammering Australia 51-20 in Auckland earlier Saturday. Argentina and Australia have two points each.
South Africa 33 (Bryan Habana, Cornal Hendricks, Marcell Coetzee tries; Handre Pollard conversion, 3 penalties, Morne Steyn 2 conversions, penalty), Argentina 31 (Manuel Montero, Tomas Cubelli, Joaquin Tuculet tries; Nicolas Sanchez 2 conversions, 2 penalties, Juan Martin Hernandez dropped goal, Marcelo Bosch penalty). HT: 16-13.