England 28 United States 10: Barkley the bright spot for woeful champions

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They are a diplomatic lot, the men who temporarily abandon the stresses and strains of the day job to turn out for Gentlemen of Aspen or Park City Haggis in the nascent All-American rugby competition. Asked whether England stood so much as a snowball's chance in hell of retaining their world title over the coming weeks, only one of them went for the straight-from-the-hip option, à la Joan Rivers or her fellow comic giant, President Bush. Perhaps he had an eye on a vacancy in the White House.

This was the try-scoring prop Matekitonga Moeakiola, who, it was safe to assume, was not born into a family of Boston Brahmins boasting a helipad in the backyard and a holiday home in Kennebunkport. "I always wanted to play against the best," said the 18st-plus forward from the South Seas. "It's just that I'm not sure England are the best."

Ouch. It was a telling comment – one infinitely more piercing, and indeed more accurate, than the soft-soap variety offered by the likes of Mike Hercus, the United States captain and former Sale and Llanelli fly-half, who trusted that the champions would be better this Friday, when they face the Springboks, than they were on Saturday, when they faced their own demons and spent large tracts of the game being consumed by them.

"They'll probably lift it for the other matches," the Australian-raised Virginian remarked. "This might have been our grand final, but it wasn't their grand final." In other words, England are the kind of side who need to be railroaded into a performance by opponents rather more intimidating than the Yanks.

As the South Africans have been known to do some railroading and intimidating in their time, the whole of England must be hoping and praying that Hercus was bang on the money. Unfortunately, those who made the trip to Lens and witnessed the most turgid World Cup display delivered by a red rose team in more than a decade – a display that had only Olly Barkley, who produced a revelatory performance in the pivot position, to recommend it – must fear that Moeakiola was nearer the mark.

Barkley made a series of breaks so crisp and clean that there was no good reason why he and his colleagues should not have passed the 50 mark. Had he been an All Black, there would have been a half-century on the board before the interval, and another one by the final whistle. In fact, the champions' highly developed method of failing to score tries was put into proper perspective by the free-thinking brilliance earlier in the day of the New Zealanders in Marseilles and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Wallabies in Lyons. By comparison with the Antipodeans, who showed real bite in their respective victories over Italy and Japan, the English contribution to a long afternoon's sport was rugby's equivalent of pulling teeth.

"It was a victory, but we won't be putting any sugar on the top of it," Barkley confessed, after single-handedly reducing the negative consequences of Jonny Wilkinson's latest injury trauma to zero and then being dumped on his head towards close of play by a grisly tackle from Paul Emerick, the American centre, whose performance until then had been nothing short of excellent.

"I think that incident probably cured me of vertigo," continued the Bath midfielder. "It wasn't as bad as it looked – I wasn't really smashed into the floor. The painful aspect of the match from my perspective was the poor execution of skills and some bad communication. I'm happy that certain areas of my game went well but, speaking as the guy controlling the side, some of the things we did were disheartening."

He could not have used a more appropriate word. Against a side who took the field with very limited expectations – that is to say, they expected a thrashing – it took the full-time professionals 34 minutes to score the first of three tries. (Four would have earned them a bonus point, but they deserved no such reward). At a similar stage, the All Blacks were travelling at more than a point a minute against far more accomplished opposition. But then, the New Zealanders understand the value of running good angles from depth and taking a pass at pace. Here on Saturday, there was precious little in the way of angles or pace. As for depth, it would have been easier to find an elephant's ear on a bun, as Basil Fawlty once said.

It was a slow game all round. Hercus, who played a clever hand in marshalling the American effort even if his trademark punting was a little off-cue, intercepted a pass from Ben Kay and raced clear, only to run out of puff in the England 22. Vahafolau Esikia was another to find himself in the wide open prairies; he too was hauled in by a scrambling defence. When Moeakiola wrenched his body over the line three minutes from the end of normal time, it was from a range wholly familiar to replacement props of Tongan dimensions.

England had the game won by then, even if the victory felt like a defeat. Their first-half tries from Jason Robinson, who fielded a neat cross-kick from Mike Catt, and Barkley, the recipient of a sweet pass from Kay, were scored while Esikia was in the cooler. As Emerick pointed out: "At international level, losing a man to the sin bin always spells trouble. Teams know where the hole will open up and aim straight for it."

Whenever the Americans had a full complement, they were entirely comfortable in defence. Only once, when Tom Rees tapped a penalty to himself and drove low for the line, were they wrong-footed or taken by surprise.

By the end, the champions were struggling on the personnel front. Lawrence Dallaglio, who made no secret afterwards of the intense frustration he had felt during the contest, gave the referee, Jonathan Kaplan, a piece of his mind as the Americans hurled themselves at the English line, and then killed the ball stone dead at a ruck under the posts before heading for a spell of touchline penance. Ironically, the line he took in leaving the pitch was more direct than any he and his colleagues had managed in the best part of 90 minutes.

Brian Ashton, the England coach, wore the expression of a man who had pranged his hire car immediately after declining the extra insurance. "I wanted a win, a performance and an injury-free outcome," he said. "I got two out of the three. We'll have to be a lot more physical when we meet the Springboks."

So might it be safe to suggest that if England play like this in Saint-Denis on Friday night, they will finish a distant second? "That rather depends on how the South Africans play," he replied.

As Ashton understands this game as well as anyone and far better than most, he will know this much: however badly the Springboks perform, their rugby will be vastly superior to the indigestible stodge served up by the champions here. England have considerably less than a week to get a grip.

England: M Cueto (Sale); J Lewsey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), J Robinson (unattached); O Barkley (Bath), S Perry (Bristol); A Sheridan (Sale), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), T Rees (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: P Richards (London Irish) for Perry, 60; A Farrell (Saracens) for Catt, 64; G Chuter (Leicester) for Regan, 64; M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery, 64; M Corry (Leicester) for Shaw, 64; M Tait (Newcastle) for Robinson, 67; L Moody (Leicester) for Worsley, 71.

United States: C Wyles (Belmont Shore); S Sika (Beziers), P Emerick (Newport-Gwent Dragons), V Esikia (San Mateo), T Ngwenya (Dallas AC); M Hercus (Belmont Shore, capt), C Erskine (Waterloo); M MacDonald (Leeds), O Lentz (Maryland Exiles), C Osentowski (Belmont Shore), A Parker (Gentlemen of Aspen), M Mangan (Denver Barbarians), L Stanfill (UC Berkeley), T Clever (OMBAC), H Bloomfield (Belmont Shore). Replacements: B Burdette (NYAC) for Lentz, 52; V Malifa (Belmont Shore) for Sika, 52; I Basauri (Massy) for Bloomfield, 56; M Moeakiola (Park City Haggis) for MacDonald, 60; H Mexted (St Louis Bombers) for Mangan 71.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).