By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - A Rugby Championship that fizzled out a week early delivered a late dividend on Saturday with a pair of stunning comebacks that restored pride in New Zealand and brought a sliver of hope to Michael Cheika's Wallabies a year out from the World Cup.
Having sewn up their third successive title against Argentina last week, there was little on the line for the All Blacks at Loftus Versfeld, barring a chance to avenge their shock loss to South Africa in Wellington.
The world champions rarely need incentives, however, and they stormed back from 12 points down in the dying minutes of a classic to snatch a 32-30 win and break the hearts of Rassie Erasmus's men.
There was more at stake in Salta, where defeat against the Pumas would have meant the wooden spoon for the Wallabies and possibly the end of Cheika's tenure after a largely dismal tournament.
Trailing 31-7 after an almost comically inept half, the Australians were subject to an epic Cheika spray at the break.
They duly delivered for their coach with five unanswered tries to snatch a 45-34 win and complete the second biggest comeback in the history of test rugby.
With Australia and South Africa's rankings having plummeted since the 2015 World Cup, some northern hemisphere critics have dismissed the Rugby Championship as a poor cousin to the Six Nations, more a vehicle for All Black domination than a competitive tournament.
The detractors are unlikely to be appeased after Steve Hansen's side finished with five wins from six matches.
Yet the three also-rans leave with more hope about their chances at the global showpiece in Japan next year.
Written off after losing to Australia and Argentina in their first three matches, Erasmus's team rallied brilliantly in Wellington to upset the world champions then showed in Pretoria that a genuine rivalry could emerge.
"It gives me hope that and belief that if we do a few things right we will be in with a real chance at the next year’s World Cup," Erasmus said.
Despite giving up a tournament record margin in Salta and taking the wooden spoon, Argentina will also feel positive once the sting of defeat dissipates, having finished with their biggest ever points haul since joining the competition in 2012.
Once boasting a powerful scrum, the Pumas' strength has shifted to their backline under Mario Ledesma, and their revamped game yielded a breakthrough win on Australian soil.
As shown in Salta, they will need to learn how to better close out games if they hope to advance from a tough group in Japan featuring England and France.
Australian fans will hope the Wallabies' dramatic turnaround against Argentina might be the spark that fires the side toward a strong World Cup.
In reality, the win glossed over a largely abysmal campaign marked by persistent failure to executing some of the most basic tenets of the game.
Deservedly hounded by an exasperated local media, Cheika appeared powerless to lift a team seemingly determined to self-destruct, and his desperation showed in a failed experiment to play Kurtley Beale at flyhalf midway through the competition.
Yet in just one half of focused football in Salta, the Wallabies shrugged off the gloom with a try-scoring frenzy to buy Cheika some badly needed time.
"It’s not just a game. It means something," Cheika said.
"When they play like they did in the second half, they showed like it really meant something to them."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)