John Wells, the England forwards coach, used the word "turgid" to describe some of the things he saw from his charges against Australia six days ago. Martin Johnson might have gone for "insipid" had he wanted to be equally blunt, but as is his wont, he stopped well short of overt criticism. But the manager did tacitly acknowledge that the red rose pack has been struggling with an aggression deficit – a subject he is likely to address behind closed doors ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Argentina at Twickenham.
Asked if he had seen any sign of the controlled yet utterly ruthless hostility that characterised England's approach to the forward exchanges when he and the likes of Neil Back were doing their thing for the national cause before and during the 2003 World Cup, he replied: "I think there's a lot more to come out of this pack in that respect. The players recognise that." In other words: "No, not really."
Quite whether the Pumas will spend tonight fretting over the hard-nut element in the England eight is a moot point: they have, after all, armed themselves with the likes of Rodrigo Roncero and Martin Scelzo, not to mention the implacably competitive Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Indeed, it is generally assumed that if England manage to win, it will not be by beating up the tourists at scrum, ruck and maul.
It is the sort of assumption that gets on the nerves of players like Duncan Bell, the tight-head prop recalled to the starting line-up for the first time since the spring of 2005. "It's true to say that the Pumas bring a high degree of physicality to their game – that when they pull on the shirt, they rise to the badge, as it were," said the 35-year-old Bath front-rower. "But so do we. We're passionate people as well, and we want to win as badly as anyone."
No one doubts the level of English desire – the Six Nations matches in Wales and Ireland earlier this year were not lost through a lack of effort. But with very few exceptions, most notably the World Cup wins over Australia and France two years ago, there has been precious little sign in recent times of the hard-hitting work at close quarters that defined the pack in which Johnson played. Unless England make big strides in this area tomorrow, another home defeat at the hands of the South Americans will be on the cards.
Disconcertingly from the viewpoint of the current coaches, it might be argued that the last time a red-rose pack performed with a reassuring degree of ferocity for more than half an hour at a time was back in the autumn of 2005, under Andy Robinson. Over three exciting weeks, they put 40 points on Samoa, beat the Wallabies with plenty to spare and stood toe to toe with the All Blacks in a brutal game at Twickenham before losing 23-19.
Robinson is now in charge in Scotland, who play their first game under his stewardship against Fiji tomorrow. The Scots have not always possessed the most intimidating pack, but the new coach has some useful forwards at his disposal now and is well capable of moulding them into an effective fighting force.
"There's pressure from Andy to get things nailed down," said Johnnie Beattie, the Glasgow No 8, yesterday. "The way he coaches, the players are really hands-on and are expected to take ownership on the pitch. We know we have to match Fiji and look to dominate. We need to win those physical encounters." That will be the very least Robinson expects. It should be the least Johnson expects, too.
* The Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings, who gave the British and Irish Lions a torrid work-out during last summer's tour of Springbok country, have been denied a place in the expanded Super 15 competition from 2011. The additional franchise has been awarded to Melbourne, which means Australia will have a fifth team and achieve parity with New Zealand and South Africa. Independent arbiters made the decision after representatives of SANZAR, the tournament's governing body, failed to reach agreement. John O'Neill, the outspoken managing director of the Australian Rugby Union, called it a "vote for common sense".