To lose to New Zealand at home is one thing; to do so to Argentina quite another. For whatever reason England played more like Paraguay than the country that won the last World Cup. They were as flat as a stingray without the sting and while the England players, what was left of them, were jeered off the pitch at the end, Argentina performed a dance in the middle of Twickenham.
It was England's seventh successive defeat, equalling the worst spells in their history, the first 100 years ago when they played at places like Cork, Crystal Palace and Inverleith and the last in 1971-72. The rise and fall of the red rose brigade has been like one of the world's scariest rides and yesterday's nosebleed intensified the pressure on the head coach Andy Robinson, whose neck has become increasingly exposed.
Last night, though, Robinson found an ally in the captain, Martin Corry. "We're comfortable with the coaching regime," Corry said. "We'll stick by Robinson. It's the players who are making the mistakes. You can analyse everything as much as you like but it's us and only us to blame. Being booed off at Twickenham no matter what you are made of is hard to take. We are absolutely devastated." An equally devastated Robinson said he had no intention of standing down and was confident of the Rugby Football Union's support and that of Rob Andrew, the élite director of rugby. "We'll give ourselves time to think things through and prepare for South Africa," Robinson said. The Springboks visit Twickenham for successive Tests, beginning on Saturday.
This defeat, though, was a watershed in the game. For England it was their first home defeat to a country outside the so-called Big Eight, and for Argentina their first victory at Twickenham. A week ago the All Blacks chalked up a record win here but then they are the world No 1 and hottest favourites to win the World Cup in France next year. Ultra-professional, their reward for taking part in the match that opened the new South Stand was £1m. Argentina's reward was more tangible, although they couldn't cash it at a bank.
Agustin Pichot, the Pumas' captain, has been complaining for years that back in Buenos Aires rugby, and the national union, is still living in the amateur era. There is no money to pay the players, which explains why the best, including Pichot, play abroad. Yesterday the little scrum-half, who played for Rich-mond and Bristol before moving to France, was named man of the match. And this was his first match in four months. But don't cry for Argentina, it is the English game that has suddenly become so impoverished they have the appearance of a second-tier nation. "We knew if we put them under pressure they'd crack," Pichot said. "We met England at a time when they're fragile. I hope for the sake of international rugby that they bounce back." If Argentina haven't been together since June, England looked yesterday as if they were suffering the effects of too much rugby. At a guess you'd say the condemned men had breakfasted on valium. There was no urgency about their approach and the execution of whatever they were trying to do was dire.
The Pumas have long been recognised as having packs to die for and yesterday's forward unit was no exception. England found them a real handful and the result was an inordinate number of turnovers conceded which had England operating on a platform riddled with dry rot.
Along with conceding possession and spilling ball, England gave away 13 penalties and six of them were sent sailing through the posts. In the opening stages Charlie Hodgson and Felipe Contepomi exchanged kicks and it wasn't until the 32nd minute that England brought a cheer from their supporters when Paul Sackey finally received a pass with a moment to spare and the right wing scored a beauty, beating three defenders on a hazy, powerful run from 45 yards. England were 10-3 up and maybe Sackey had supplied the inspiration they needed. Not a bit of it. Argentina made it 10-9 at the interval, Federico Todeschini slotting two penalties. Todeschini had come on midway through the half and this is the man who kicked his country to a draw with the Lions in Cardiff last year, just before the tourists left for New Zealand.
Two minutes into the second half, the centre put Argentina ahead for the first time with his third penalty after Lewis Moody offended. This was a gem from the touchline. England were on the rack and they did not keep their counsel. They began to talk gibberish. Hodgson, who had already seen the departure of his scrum-half Shaun Perry, was taken off to a loud cheer. The stand-off had not been playing at all well but no sooner had his replacement, Toby Flood, taken the field than everything went pear-shaped. Flood delivered a pass in midfield which was intercepted by Todeschini, who ran about 70 yards for a try he himself converted.
The red rose replacements continued apace and a slow handclap finally prompted a response, Flood kicking a penalty and Iain Balshaw scoring a magnificent try from deep in his own half. England's deficit was down to a single point but they continued to give away stupid penalties and Todeschini continued to punish them. He ended up with 22 points and England with some of their fans throwing their white jerseys on to the touchline.
England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), A Allen (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), S Perry (Bristol); P Freshwater (Perpignan), G Chuter, J White (both Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay, M Corry (both Leicester, capt), P Sanderson (Worcester), L Moody (Leicester). Replacements: M Lund (Sale) for Moody, 8-12 & for Sanderson, 74; P Richards (Gloucester) for Perry, 47; T Palmer (Wasps) for Grewcock, 51; T Flood (Newcastle) for Hodgson, 53; J Lewsey (Wasps) for Sackey, 55; L Mears (Bath) for Chuter, 74.
Argentina: JM Hernandez (Stade Français); JM Nunez Piossek (Bayonne), M Avramovic (Worcester), G Tiesi (London Irish), P Gomez Cora (Lomas Athletic); F Contepomi (Leinster), A Pichot (Stade Français); M Ayerza (Leicester), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), O Hasan (Toulouse), I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), P Albacete (Toulouse), JM Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), G Longo (Clermont Auvergne), JM Leguizamon (London Irish). Replacements: F Todeschini (Montpellier) for Tiesi, 25; E Lozada (CASI) for I Fernandez Lobbe, 61-64; H Agulla (Hindu) for Avramovic, 61; M Scelzo (Clermont) for Hasan, 69; M Schusterman (Leeds) for Leguizamon, 70.
Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand).Reuse content