There is a time and a place to use the boot in rugby, and though England are often accused of knowing neither, their relocation to Old Trafford for a one-off Test in which, confusingly, Argentina were the hosts brought out the best in Mark Cueto. The Sale wing and Manchester United fan is a regular in the stands at the Theatre of Dreams and his volleys to create two second-half tries for Delon Armitage were telling pieces of improvisation, if a long way from anything practised by Wayne Rooney.
The more orthodox tendency of England's backs to whack the ball in the air when there was reason to keep it in hand was much in evidence, on a pitch of more restrictive dimensions than they are used to at Twickenham, and it unsettled Argentina, who had not played together since November. Though stronger on paper than England, the Pumas were never in front after Andy Goode's eighth-minute penalty had equalised a drop-goal by his opposing fly-half, Juan Martin Hernandez, after 69 seconds.
That was Hernandez's fifth drop-goal in 31 Tests and he sashayed around where his compatriot Carlos Tevez is ordinarily the fans' favourite. But Goode was the more effective No 10 of the two, with 22 points from two drop-goals, two conversions and four penalties. Goode of Brive was up against 13 Argentinian representatives of French clubs; which explained in part the unusual venue at the end of the European season; it was also hoped that a large crowd, with 70 per cent of the receipts going to the Argentina Rugby Union, would be more lucrative to them than a match in Buenos Aires. The Twickenhamites in attendance were here for the first time since Martin Johnson played in an England team against New Zealand in 1997.
Johnson had his manager's shirt and jacket on yesterday, and after six defeats in 10 previous matches during his first season in charge, this was never going to be a charitable jolly. England scored one try in the first half, in the 26th minute, when the new Stade Français blindside James Haskell burst across the gain line after a line-out and the ball went wide for Delon Armitage to chip ahead and Matt Banahan to win the chase through a ponderous second line of Pumas defence.
There were other quality moments from Banahan, the giant Bath wing who also scored last week against the Barbarians, and though he is a work in progress it is one worth pursuing. Possibly into next Saturday's re-match in the foothills of the Andes, when some of England's kicks may well come down with snow on them.
Bragging rights ahead of that second Test in Salta and the 2011 World Cup pool meeting between these teams in New Zealand were at stake here. There were a few boos when Goode's drops and penalties kept moving England further ahead – 9-3 after 21 minutes; 19-9 at half-time – but Johnson, who supports Liverpool, responded: "It's not nice when people are whistling because they want to see running rugby but we came here to win a Test match. I could see them [Argentina] coming off at the end and they were deeply disappointed. We said if we could handle them and stop them scoring, we'd be in a place to win. But I've been in plenty of two-match series when the losing team has come back to win the second one. They'll bring that ferocity to the second match, and they'll have been together a week longer, which will help."
The third quarter was the one to try the crowd's patience. Two penalties apiece by Goode and Hernandez took the score to 25-15 but there were not many multi-phase moves to enthuse over. Still, England, with nine regulars away with the Lions and a few others injured, would have been satisfied with their scrum under a stern Puma examination. Armitage senior's tries added the gloss. After 68 minutes Danny Care cut through a gap from a scrum and flung a pass to Cueto on the wing. Cueto, a good footballer at school who had links with Crewe Alexandra, fashioned a volley which bounded forward perfectly for the supporting full-back, who held off Nicolas Vergallo and Juan Manuel Leguizamon to score.
A yellow card for Argentina's full-back, Horacio Agulla, and one for Julian White – the England prop who marked his 50th cap with a over-physical shoulder charge on the tiny Vergallo – created a modicum of space on a pitch with surely the shortest in-goal ever seen in Test matches. It was long enough, nevertheless, for the speedy Armitage to reach Cueto's lashed left-foot volley down the wing from Goode's midfield cross-kick and to finish Argentina off in the 80th minute.Reuse content