England's narrow escape

Rugby World Cup: 'We were appalling,' says Rob Andrew, whose boot stifles Argentina's resistance
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The Independent Online
NGLAND finally set foot on the World Cup stage yesterday and after 80 minutes were limping off it. After months of immaculate preparation, which yielded a Five Nations Grand Slam, this barren performance was a bitterly disappointing start to a campaign from which much is expected. Not once did England breach the Argentine try-line and again relied on the precision kicking of Rob Andrew to steer them to victory.

Andrew can take satisfaction in a haul of 24 points, but his display was the only positive aspect for his side. Australia, the world champions, failed to live up to their weighty reputation in Thursday's opening match, but yesterday England were further from the mark. "It was an appalling performance," Andrew said, bluntly. "I have not seen us play that badly for years. We just never got out of the blocks."

The Argentines, who scored two tries to none, were left to rue a series of missed kicks in the first half. Lisandro Arbizu, their fly-half, reflected afterwards that if Andrew had been in their side, they would have won. Even without a reliable kicker, they might still have pulled off a stunning victory if referee Jim Fleming had not disallowed a try in the second half. Fleming did not give the score, because he said the Argentines had indicated a kick at goal, but afterwards their captain Sebastian Salvat said that no such request had been made.

For all England's preparations for the hard grounds of South Africa and hours spent in space suits to simulate the heat of Durban, King's Park yesterday was home from home. Dark clouds filled the sky and, on this Indian Ocean city which promises year-round sun, there fell a 10-minute rainstorm before kick-off by way of a welcome.

This is not a happy ground for England. Last summer, they lost 21-6 to Natal here and Andrew finished with seven missed kicks out of nine and a faceful of stitches. It was left to the England fly-half himself to ease these painful memories. He gave his side a 6-0 lead after 15 minutes and, by full-time, had succeeded with every one of his six penalties and thrown in a couple of drop goals for good measure.

From penalties, Andrew's kicking won England points and from the hand he won acres of territory. Yet his colleagues failed to capitalise on his efforts. They had intended to skirt round Argentina's well-known strengths in the scrum and on the open side, but the England forwards failed to dominate. When the three-quarters were released, it was largely with untidy possession and rarely with any effect. The wet ball was spilled on countless occasions, and Dewi Morris failed to get to grips with the game.

Meanwhile, Argentina's pack were assisted by Arbizu. When Andrew punted England upfield, Arbizu would boot them back. So, by half-time, England had failed to establish any territorial dominance but were 12-0 ahead, Andrew kicking the points from the Argentine infringements while Argentina's place kicker, Rodrigo Crexell, failed with all of his three attempts.

In the second half, Argentina began to dominate affairs. A series of three-quarter moves were repelled by stout England defence, but in the 54th minute the Argentine forwards went the whole way. A penalty was awarded 10 metres out and they managed to pound over, the prop Patricio Noriega coming up triumphantly with the ball. Arbizu, who had by then taken over the place-kicking duties, kicked the conversion and, only eight points adrift, Argentina looked as if they might pull off an upset.

England responded to the Argentine score with a break by Morris which was continued by Tony Underwood, but the ball was dropped 10 metres short of the line by Steve Ojomoh. This, sadly, was as close as England got all afternoon.

After Ojomoh's miss, and as the Argentine support rose steadily in volume, England were forced again to resort to the boot of Andrew to restore calm. And he did not desert them, scoring a drop goal and a penalty. Even though, in between these scores, Arbizu had kicked another penalty for Argentina, England were 24-13 ahead and seemingly safe.

Nevertheless, they were pushed to the last and, just when England were looking for the respite of the final whistle, the Argentines scored their second try. Arbizu, their hero of the day, linked with Diego Cuesta Silva to create an overlap and the fly-half's touchdown meant that the final scoreline was a more accurate reflection of the game.

"Obviously our game plan didn't work," said Rowell, resorting to effective understatement afterwards. Indeed, besides the line-out where Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber had some success, Andrew's boot was the only part in England's game that was in full working order. Before this match, there had been suggestions in the press that England would try to lose this game in order to have an easier route through the knock-out stages of the tournament. This was a preposterous idea, and certainly Rob Andrew was not let in on it.

England: M Catt (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt, rep by P de Glanville, Bath, 75), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard (Harlequins), B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke (Bath), S Ojomoh (Bath, rep by N Back, Leicester, 34-37, 48-53).

Argentina: E Jurado (Jockey Club); M Teran (Tucuman), D Cuesta Silva (San Isidro), S Salvat (Alumni, capt), D Albanese (San Isidro); L Arbizu (Belgrano Athletic), R Crexell (Jockey Club); M Corral (San Isidro), F Mendez (Mendoza), P Noriega (Hindu), G Llanes (La Plata), P Sporleder (Curupayti), R Martin (San Isidro), C Viel (Newman, rep by S Irazoqui, Palermo Bajo, 77), J Santamarina (Tucuman).

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).