England 18 Argentina 25: Pichot's Pumas exploit English confusion for a famous victory

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The Independent Online

If the real loser of our sporting times is the one who is expected to win, Andy Robinson has taken a hell of a beating since England coughed up the Calcutta Cup to the Scots at Murrayfield some 260 days ago. Humiliated in France, betrayed by officialdom against the Irish at Twickenham, soundly walloped - twice - in Australia, marmalised by the All Blacks... there is only so much mere flesh and blood can withstand, especially when the blows keep landing on the same spot. Robinson would be less than human if he is not wondering, as a result of this latest calamity, whether he might have been better off stabbing himself during the Day of the Long Knives last April.

On that occasion, he was spared by his employers at the Rugby Football Union. It was a sparing of an unusually poisonous variety, for the head coach was charged with informing his closest colleagues - Phil Larder, Joe Lydon and Dave Alred - that their services were no longer required, while remaining on the payroll himself. But it was a reprieve all the same. Had he been right to accept it, when that part of himself driven by a highly developed sense of honour argued otherwise? This was the question the proud West Countryman asked himself in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's defeat at the hands of the Pumas, whose own union recently flirted with bankruptcy for the want of the kind of money Robinson might expect to earn in a calendar year.

The answer did not come immediately. He spent time alone in the England dressing room, his thoughts firing off in all directions, before deciding, once again, that he had invested too much time and effort, too much emotional energy, too much body and soul, to call it quits and walk away. This mood hardened when he heard the news from Lyon, where New Zealand had inflicted indignities on France far worse than those his own team had suffered six days previously. "Had we just put in half a performance and beaten Argentina by a point, we wouldn't be looking too bad," he lamented. "As it is, we look terrible. But we did put three tries past the All Blacks. The French managed none."

Robinson's most immediate problem is one of assumption and perception. To 99 per cent of the rugby public, defeat by New Zealand is acceptable in a way defeat by Argentina is not. The fact that the remaining one per cent recognised, well in advance of their arrival in London, that the Pumas posed a serious threat to England is neither here nor there. The Argentines are always dismissed out of hand - as their wonderful captain, Agustin Pichot, explained in the most graphic terms on Saturday night, they mean nothing to their own union in Buenos Aires, let alone anyone else - so it was no surprise to hear the Twickenham crowd boo and barrack Robinson as he left his seat in the West Stand to embark on the post-mortem.

Of course, the crowd's reaction revealed both a misunderstanding of the qualities the Pumas now bring to the international game, and a lack of respect for their many achievements against teams infinitely better resourced. Given the grace of God and a level playing field, Argentina could force their way into the top five of the world rankings in very short order indeed, for their best forwards - Mario Ledesma, Gonzalo Longo, the ungainly but hugely effective Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe - stack up against all-comers, as do backs of the calibre of Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez. Add to this the Wilkinsonesque marksmanship of Federico Todeschini, who apparently finds it impossible to miss a shot at the sticks, and the point is firmly made.

In light of the popular misconceptions surrounding the South Americans, what on earth would be the point of the RFU ditching Robinson now? It is only days since Rob Andrew, the newly appointed elite rugby director and the man to whom the head coach reports, talked in terms of clean slates and blank sheets of paper - the firmest possible indication that the new coaching team, featuring as it does the contrasting talents of John Wells, Brian Ashton and Mike Ford, would be given time to concoct a strategy that might give England an even-money chance of saving face at next year's World Cup. A mere 160 minutes of competitive activity have passed since those words were spoken, and as there are another 160 to come, all of them against a Springbok side suffering every bit as badly as their hosts, this is the not the time for the men in grey suits to lose nerve.

There is another issue, though, and if it is not addressed, Robinson will indeed pay the price - possibly as early as next month. On the evidence of this ragged and disjointed performance against a side who had barely conversed with each other in five months, still less trained together, the right hand of the new England hierarchy does not have the faintest idea what the left hand might be doing. The well-intentioned attempt to broaden and energise the attacking game - Ashton's domain - has so bemused the pack, currently coached by Wells, that they have lost their aggression, their sense of devil. Under Robinson's direction, the forwards were at least capable of going to war, even if they lost their way while they were there. In the four games since the reorganisation of the coaching team, which removed Robinson's hands-on responsibilities, barely a shot has been fired by the red-rose foot soldiers. Poor bloody infantry indeed.

This confusion was evident on Saturday night, when the defeated players sent out messages so mixed they might have been speaking from the Tower of Babel. Charlie Hodgson, pointedly summoned from the field after 53 minutes of ineffectual striving, thought England had "played too much rugby"; Lewis Moody, the Leicester flanker, felt they hadn't played quite enough. Iain Balshaw, who kept his side afloat with an individual try even better than the one scored by Paul Sackey just before the interval, said the team had been "caught between two games", the familiar conservative one and the unfamiliar expansive one.

And the truth of it? England do not currently possess the footballing personnel, particularly up front, to make a reality of Ashton's dreaming. Steve Thompson, Matt Stevens and Phil Vickery might manage it, once they return to the fold; Tom Rees, the young Wasps flanker, can certainly play a bit, given the opportunity. But if the world champions - how peculiar the description now seems - are serious about beating South Africa with this group of players, they should resort to type and play the tightest of tourniquet-tight games.

Even then, they will be prey to Sod's Law, which currently lords it over all other laws governing the fortunes of this benighted England team. Playing as poorly as they were, they might still have prevented the wailing and gnashing of teeth had Toby Flood, the green-as-grass outside-half from Newcastle, not thrown an interception pass to Todeschini, who ran 60 metres for the decisive score. Robinson, aghast at his side's inability to make two correct decisions in succession, knew then that the die was cast.

Pichot knew it, too. "I felt victory was ours at that moment, because you could almost smell the pressure on them," he said, gleefully. "I am an old player now, but this has given me 10 more years." As England's head coach may not have 10 days left to him, his words carried the sting of a scorpion.

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 (Leicester), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt), L Moody (Leicester), P Sanderson (Worcester). 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: J M Hernandez (Stade Français); J M Nunez Piossek (Bayonne), G Tiesi (London Irish), M Avramovic (Worcester), P Gomez Cora (Lomas Athletic); F Contepomi (Leinster), A Pichot (Stade Français, capt); M Ayerza (Leicester), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), O Hasan (Toulouse), I Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), P Albacete (Pau), J M Leguizamon (London Irish), J M Fernandez Lobbe (Sale), G Longo (Clermont Auvergne). Replacements: F Todeschini (Montpellier) for Tiesi, 26; E Lozada (CASI) for I Fernandez Lobbe, 61-64; H Agulla (Hindu) for Avramovic, 61; M Scelzo (Clermont Auvergne) for Hasan, 69; M Schusterman (Leeds) for Leguizamon, 70.

Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand).

Twickenham statistics


10 Scrums won 12

0 Scrums lost 0

15 Line-outs won 14

2 Line-outs lost 0

13 Penalties conceded 10

9 Turnovers won 8

123 Passes completed 77

8 Line breaks 6

24 Possession kicked 36

74 Tackles made 77

5 Tackles missed 13

20 Total errors 11