England running game runs out of steam

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reports from Durban

England 24

Argentina 18

The dispiriting thing about England's low-key, downbeat beginning to the World Cup was not that they produced such a poor performance, though Jack Rowell's frequent assertion of the need to "hit the ground running" appeared to have fallen on deaf ears.

The metaphor is as mixed as England's muddled performance, which was every bit as bad as those they gave the last time they arrived in South Africa a year ago but equally contained nothing whatever of the dynamic, wide-ranging rugby both Rowell as manager and Will Carling as captain have incessantly led us to expect. "We can only improve or we are going to go home faster than we came out here," Rowell said.

So this was the real disappointment: that, having again and again talked a good game, when it mattered they could not play one. Instead they reverted to a type of rugby that most of us thought had been consigned to English history, of shoeing the dimples off the ball instead of passing it, of hitting and hoping for something to turn up.

Not so the Pumas, who were rather more than the inconvenience of English imagining. They have a commanding scrum with possibly the best front row anywhere in world rugby. They have a capable group of players most of whom have developed together since they finished the Welsh group at the 1991 World Cup without a win.

And at King's Park they had an alarmingly faster back row than England's, a better supply of loose ball than England's and, as their two tries to England's nil betrayed, a bolder vision of what to do with it and when. England, by contrast, had Rob Andrew deep in the comfort-zone all evening waiting to kick.

There was not the slightest pretence of taking the ball up flat to commit the opposition, as we are often told Andrew and England have now been programmed to do. With the exception of Ben Clarke, none of England's forward runners-off - neither Tim Rodber nor Steve Ojomoh nor Victor Ubogu - made any impact.

Instead the outside-half won the match through the more traditional expedient of kicking all his goals, another 24 points extending his England record to 341 and leaving Sebastian Salvat to state what seemed the obvious when he said that if his side had had Andrew they would most certainly have won.

Or would they? The impeccable Andrew landed six penalties out of six as well as dropping two goals and having another ruled out because it occurred after a free-kick before a member of the opposition had touched the ball. Compare that with Argentina and you can take Salvat's point: Rodrigo Crexell squandered the first two penalties, Lisandro Arbizu kicked two of the next five and missed the second conversion.

On the other hand, if Andrew had sat back behind the Argentine pack as he did behind the English, it is impossible to believe the Pumas would have played with such fluidity - sufficient fluidity, it should be said, to put England to shame. Geoff Cooke, the former manager, found it reminiscent of the England of a decade ago - which would be about as disparaging as he could get if it had not been said so politely.

Mind you, it is equally impossible to believe these are either the tactics or the strategy Rowell has in mind. A poor performance is excusable, even in the World Cup and especially after two months without a game together, but there will no excuses if England should repeat it against Italy on Wednesday and/or Western Samoa next Sunday, and no way past the quarter- final if they do so against Australia.

The Wallabies had already proved by their failure against South Africa that impressive training form does not necessarily equate with playing even half-decently and England blithely added their own confirmation. It was not that they ever quite looked as if they would contrive to lose - Andrew saw to that - but at the same time Argentina were a patently superior side.

This was most obviously demonstrated in their ability, as distinct from England's inability, to score tries and though there was an element of refereeing leniency attached to one of them, there was nothing wrong with the other and they had a third contentiously disallowed.

By the time of Patricio Noriega's try Andrew had already scored 18 points and he had added the remaining six before Arbizu's, so England were never quite pulled back within the Pumas' range. Noriega was driven over from a tap-penalty by what looked suspiciously like an illicit flying wedge but the referee, Jim Fleming, judged that the prop had received the ball single-handedly before the rest of his pack piled in behind.

The score was 21-13 when Arbizu's quick penalty put Martin Teran clear only for Fleming to recall the prematurely exultant wing because it had been indicated he would kick for goal - a suggestion vehemently denied by both Arbizu and Salvat. And it was 24-13 and into injury-time when the superlative Rolando Martin initiated the attack that culminated in Arbizu skipping past a threadbare England defence.

That it had been penetrated twice in one match, as often as in the whole of last season's Five Nations' Championship, betrayed carelessness bordering on complacency. "There has been a lot of speculation about the quarter-finals which maybe affected us," Andrew suggested. "But if we play again like that we might not even reach the quarter-finals." By the way, England did win.

ENGLAND: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (both Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (both Northampton), S Ojomoh, B Clarke (both Bath). Replacement: P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling, 79. Temporary substitute: N Back (Leicester) for Ojomoh, 34-36, 49-52.

ARGENTINA: E Jurado (Rosario); M Teran (Tucuman), D Cuesta Silva (San Isidro), S Salvat (Alumni, capt), D Albanese (San Isidro); L Arbizu (Belgrano), R Crexell (Rosario); M Corral (Sanisisdro), F Mendez (Mendoza), P Noriega (Hindu), G Llanes (La Plata), P Sporleder (Curupayti), R Martin (San Isidro), J Santamarina (Tucuman), C Viel (Newman). Replacement: S Irazoqui (Palermo Bajo) for Viel, 70.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).