TWICKENHAM, LONDON -- Just when they were beginning to look broken and disjointed, the Barbarians pulled together as a team and fought back from 21 points down to beat Argentina 38-35.
Elton Jantjies' 79th-minute drop-goal may have stolen the game away from the Pumas in the dying seconds, but in truth this was a match won thanks to a dogged second-half fightback by a team that only came together at the start of the week.
For the best part, the Barbarians looked a side who were just that: strangers playing in their final game of the year following a tough November schedule. There were plenty of tired legs, an absence of any flow or flair, and not a lot for the 30,000 people inside Twickenham to get excited about.
"When the score goes to 28-7, you start thinking, 'This is going to get ugly,'" Baa Baas coach Rassie Erasmus said afterward, admitting that his team, comprising eight different nationalities, struggled to gel following only three training sessions this week. "But I think it shows the maturity, the guts and the spirit of Barbarian rugby."
Ten tries in total -- five for either side -- suggests the match was far more open and free-flowing than it actually was. The Barbarians started quickly with Juan Manuel Leguizamon touching down against his international teammates inside the opening two minutes. The veteran of 85 Pumas caps collected a wonderful offload from the evergreen Schalk Brits before bursting through compatriot Sebastian Cancelliere to cross the line.
But under the grey December sky in London, the Barbarians fell flat. Argentina, coming into the match following a difficult Autumn series which saw three defeats from three, played their part as they quickly racked up three tries in the next 10 minutes -- all successfully converted by Joaquin Diaz Bonilla -- before individual brilliance from Ramiro Matera set up his opposite winger Sebastian Cancelliere to cross over for the fourth.
The Barbarians awoke from their malaise to score just before halftime, committing all 15 men to the lineout on the Argentine five-metre line and creating a swell of black and white which barrelled toward the line. Pumas captain Pablo Matera was adjudged to stop the maul illegally, and a penalty try was awarded.
"We always knew that we would clear the bench at 50 minutes," Erasmus said, as he reflected on the comeback which was to come. "You could see we were running out of wind, but there was a good bench behind them, even the guys who I didn't know personally before this week."
Captain Wyatt Crockett was given a warm reception as he left Twickenham for the final time and headed off into retirement. Brits left shortly after, and it was his replacement Malcolm Marx who set up the Barbarians' second try from a lineout. Again, all 15 players were involved as the ball was forced over the line, this time Pieter-Steph du Toit handing the ball off to Handre Pollard.
Argentina hit back through a maul of their own before Jantjies came off the bench to make his impact at fly-half. His kick behind the Argentina defence found Damian de Allende who scored in the corner. Twickenham had found its voice as the Barbarians piled on the pressure. They found the breakthrough with man of the match Lood de Jager, who burst through the Argentina defence after clever offloads from Jesse Kriel and Frank Lomani.
The score set up a grandstand finish with five minutes to go. "We're the Barbarians, we didn't plan for a drop-goal," Erasmus joked afterward, but it was Jantjies who seized the opportunity, his left-footed strike wobbling through the posts with 60 seconds left on the clock.
"It was my responsibility to win the game for the boys, and I took that responsibility," Jantjies said.
Erasmus added: "I like it when guys make big decisions. Elton had a good head. I don't care how it went over."
The entire Barbarians bench ran onto the field as Jantjies booted the ball into touch moments later to seal the win. It wasn't the performance they wanted, but the team pulled through and got the result.
"We had a good week, a short week, but the boys bought into the plan. We wanted to enjoy ourselves," Jantjies said. "There weren't egos. We made a few tactical decisions and it paid off. We still had fun, but there was a nice balance in the second half."
It wasn't a vintage Barbarians display, but tradition dictates that the post-match celebrations will be as large as ever. "There's a big night ahead," Erasmus said. "But I feel for Argentina, for them to put in this fixture. They always play with such a good spirit. I don't know if we deserved to win this game, but I'm glad for the boys."