Habana needed one more score to move ahead of Lomu’s all-time best 15, but he saw one try ruled out and another go begging as he dropped the ball 10 metres short of the line.
South Africa’s night at the Olympic Stadium was far more comfortable as tries from JP Pietersen — his fifth of the tournament — and Eben Etzebeth sealed victory before Juan Pablo Orlandi gave Argentina a late consolation.
Handre Pollard also kicked 14 points for the Springboks, who went out on a high following their semi-final defeat to New Zealand last weekend.
It may not have been the match either team wanted to be playing this weekend but both sets of players sang their national anthems with enough passion to suggest this was more than just an end-of-tournament exhibition.
Adrenaline may even have been running too high early on as Argentine scrum-half Tomas Cubelli was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle and South Africa instantly capitalised, spinning the ball wide for JP Pietersen to dive over in the corner. Handre Pollard converted and three minutes later the Springboks were almost in again as Habana jumped on a loose ball over the whitewash but Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino was adjudged to have got there first.
Pollard extended the advantage to 10-0 with a penalty after 13 minutes as Cubelli returned to the field with his side already under pressure.
Restored to full strength, Argentina found a foothold in the contest and could have reduced the deficit when Cubelli weaved his way through but was stopped 10 metres short.
The Springboks weathered the storm and again Habana went close, but again that 16th try proved elusive as he spilled Pollard’s looping pass .
More Argentinian indiscipline at the scrum, however, ensured South Africa did not come away empty-handed as Nicolas Sanchez was penalised for coming in at the side and Pollard duly slotted another three points.
South Africa ended the period on top and another penalty allowed Pollard to kick his side 16 points clear with the last action of the half.
Sanchez put the Pumas on the scoreboard with a drop-goal soon after the restart but any hopes of a comeback were soon curtailed as Eben Etzebeth slid over for a second South Africa try.
Pollard was unable to add the conversion from wide and minutes later, Habana’s woes continued as the winger let a simple pass slip down his midriff to hand possession back to Argentina.
Habana apart, however, South Africa were cruising as an offside allowed Pollard to kick another penalty before Argentina botched a line-out five metres from their opponents’ line. An infringement up front did mean Sanchez cut the Springboks’ lead to 24-6, before Argentine veteran Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe left the field to warm applause on his final international appearance.
Matfield’s Test career also came to an end with 18 minutes remaining, moments after his team-mate Adriaan Strauss had sparked a mass brawl to keep the dozing crowd entertained.
If the second-half began to feel more about players leaving the pitch than those still on it, Habana continued the trend as he was replaced in the 68th minute, ensuring Lomu’s now joint record remains intact.The Pumas had the last word as Juan Pablo Orlandi touched down for the biggest cheer of the night, with Sanchez converting for a late consolation.
Tries: Pietersen, Etzebeth. Cons: Pollard. Pens: Pollard 4.
le Roux, Pietersen, Kriel, de Allende, Habana, Pollard, Pienaar, Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, Malherbe, Etzebeth, Matfield, Louw, Burger, Vermeulen.
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).
Tries: Orlandi. Cons: Sanchez. Pens: Sanchez. Drop Goals: Sanchez.
Gonzalez Amorosino, Cordero, Moroni, de la Fuente, Agulla, Sanchez, Cubelli, Figallo, Montoya, Herrera, Alemanno, Lavanini, Ortega Desio, Fernandez Lobbe, Leguizamon.
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).
John Lacey (Ireland).