A JP Pietersen try and Handre Pollard’s boot gave South Africa a 16-0 half-time lead before Nicolas Sanchez finally got the Pumas on the scoreboard.
But Eben Etzebeth’s try put the Boks out of sight and Juan Pablo Orlandi’s late reply was little consolation.
The only disappointment for the Boks was that Bryan Habana was unable to claim the all-time World Cup try scoring record on his own.
The 32-year-old winger came within inches of scoring in the first half, only to be denied by the fingertips of Argentina full-back Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino as they both chased a kick.
But with the record on his mind – he entered the game tied on 15 World Cup tries with New Zealand legend Jonah Lomu – he had a mixed game, and several spilled passes suggested it was not to be his night before he was taken off to a rapturous farewell from a packed Olympic Stadium with 15 minutes remaining.
Boks overpower Pumas
South Africa fielded a near first-choice XV and the power of their pack ultimately told in east London.
Argentina enjoyed the majority of the possession but they ran into an unbreachable wall, with giant lock Etzebeth adding a game-high 20 tackles to his try and fellow second row Victor Matfield – captaining the Boks in his last-ever Test – weighing in with 16 in his hour on the pitch.
With open-side flanker Francois Louw winning a remarkable five turnovers on his own, to add to a dozen tackles, Argentina were never able to reproduce their attacking fizz from earlier in the tournament.
A game too far for Argentina?
The Pumas, seeking to match their third-place finish in 2007, made nine changes as a result of injury and exhaustion, and they were unable to match the sheer physicality of the Boks.
They enjoyed the better of both territory and possession but with their pack out-gunned up front, dangerous runners such as Santiago Cordero and Horacio Agulla were never given a sniff of the Springbok tryline.
They made an impressive 564 metres as a team with ball in hand but were forced to attack from deep and every time they approached the South Africa 22 a thumping tackle or classy steal saw them repelled.
|4 (0)||Scrums won (lost)||5 (1)|
|15 (1)||Line-outs won (lost)||13 (1)|
|63 (4)||Rucks won (lost)||137 (7)|
|36||Kicks from hand||25|
|180 (32)||Tackles made (missed)||100 (17)|
What they said
South Africa captain Victor Matfield, who is retiring from international rugby: “We would loved to have played in the final tomorrow but unfortunately things didn’t go our way.
“We have a lot of respect for Argentina. A bronze medal is better than fourth place.
“I’m just so relieved we won the game. We’ll have a beer with Schalk Burger and the guys I’ve spent so much of my life with.”
The stats that matter
- Nicolas Sanchez scored eight points in the game, taking his tally to 97 points for the tournament and making him the top scorer at the 2015 World Cup so far.
- Schalk Burger played in his 20th World Cup game, only ex-England prop Jason Leonard (22) and New Zealand’s Richie McCaw (21) have played more games in the tournament (former Australia scrum-half George Gregan also played 20).
- JP Pietersen scored his ninth World Cup try, only Bryan Habana (15) has scored more in the World Cup for the Springboks (former centre Jaque Fourie also has nine).
South Africa: Le Roux; Pietersen, Kriel, De Allende, Habana; Pollard, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B du Plessis, Malherbe; Etzebeth, Matfield; Louw, Burger, Vermeulen.
Replacements: Lambie for Le Roux (64), Serfontein for Habana (67), Paige for Pienaar (77), Nyakane for Mtawarira (40), Strauss for B du Plessis (48), J du Plessis for Malherbe (60), de Jager for Matfield (62), Alberts for Burger (53).
Argentina: Gonzalez Amorosino; Cordero, Moroni, De la Fuente, Agulla; Sanchez, Cubelli; Figallo, Montoya, Herrera; Alemanno, Lavanini; Ortega Desio, Fernandez Lobbe, Leguizamon.
Replacements: Gonzalez Iglesias for de la Fuente (70), Socino for Agulla (58), Landajo for Cubelli (52), Noguera for Figallo (61), Garcia Botta for Montoya (77), Orlandi for Herrera (55), Petti Pagadizabal for Alemanno (47), Isa for Fernandez Lobbe (52).
Sin bin: Cubelli (5).
Ref: John Lacey (Ireland).