AUCKLAND - Piri Weepu pulled on his shooting boots to kick New Zealand to victory over Argentina and seal a place in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals.
Weepu was the star performer of the match at Eden Park, slotting seven penalties for a 100 per cent success rate that set a RWC 2011 record.
Second-half tries by Kieran Read and veteran Brad Thorn cemented a 33-10 win for the All Blacks to set up a last-four showdown with Australia next week and the success commemorated full back Mils Muliaina's 100th Test match.
Weepu's night of magic drew praise from assistant coach Steven Hansen, who said: “He had an outstanding game and we are really proud of him.
"Tonight he stood up. His brain is working at 100 miles an hour but he is ice cool as well. He is one of the leaders in the team."
Teammate Conrad Smith was equally impressed. “His goalkicking was huge for us and that fed a bit of confidence into him," he said.
A menacing rendition of their Kapa o Pango haka made the All Blacks’ intent clear but it was not the most polished of starts from the number one team in the world.
New Zealand were lucky not to concede a try just seven minutes into the match following a handling error by young fly half Colin Slade as they battled to break through the Argentine defence.
Weepu got the first points on the board from a penalty kick in 12 minutes, the longest time it has taken the All Blacks to score points at RWC 2011.
Handling errors continued to plague them and it was not long before the Pumas pounced, with Julio Farías Cabello going over for the first try on the half-hour mark. A successful conversion by captain Felipe Contepomi gave his side a one-point lead before two more penalties from Weepu put the All Blacks back in front 12-7 at half-time.
New Zealand’s newest squad member Aaron Cruden, who joined the team last week following Dan Carter’s exit through injury, revelled in the opportunity to play after replacing Colin Slade in the 32nd minute.
"A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on the couch and enjoying the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and now I am playing in it,” Cruden said. “It is surreal.”
Weepu continued his fine kicking form after the break while New Zealand pushed for a try.
Argentina’s defence continued to hold firm, managing to deny the All Blacks any points for 10 minutes as they played a man down after scrum half Nicolás Vergallo’s trip to the sin bin.
But with a final tally of 134 tackles compared with New Zealand’s 54, the Pumas started to tire towards the end. That enabled Read to break through to score the All Blacks’ first try and bring most of the 57,912, black-clad fans to their feet.
Although it took his men 66 minutes to register a try, New Zealand coach Graham Henry was happy with how his side took on their tenacious opponents.
"You like to score early. It takes the pressure off,” he said. “But it was one of those games. It was a tough old game. They played well and I think they deserve a lot of credit."
Captain Richie McCaw said: "They defended really well. In the first half they slowed the ball. As the game went on we got on top of things. We kept believing what we were doing and we got the points."
Argentina captain Contepomi commended his team’s brave performance against the tournament favourites and believes the effort bodes well for the future.
"I think we were competitive for 60 minutes,” he said. “Then the All Blacks showed their match and they won it well. But that's just rugby.
"When we have the ball, we have to try to keep it a bit longer because we have some players who can play some more dynamic rugby. But that will happen when we play more games and when we play every year against the best, the All Blacks.”
The stage is now set for New Zealand to meet their trans-Tasman rivals Australia next Sunday. With the All Blacks still smarting from their most recent loss to the Wallabies in the final Tri Nations match in August, Read is relishing meeting them again in the semi-final.
“For us to play next week is good enough in itself,” he said. “But I suppose it doesn't get much better than playing a semi-final against the Aussies."