There are holes in England’s game, as everyone knows, and it is unlikely they will be plugged completely in the next seven days leading up to the concluding autumn international against New Zealand but Chris Robshaw was quite right in describing the week to come before his team faces the world champions as “exciting”.
The England captain was his usual workaholic self in a four-try win over an understrength Argentina and a final-whistle chorus of “ Sweet Chariot” suggested the Twickenham crowd too were readying themselves contentedly for the bigger challenge to come.
Chris Ashton ended a tryless drought of five Tests with his 18th score for England but he still looks a fish out of water on the fringes of defence and uncertain of himself making his ball-tracking raids in attack. The England midfield is far from perfect but will probably stay intact to face the All Blacks. In the forwards the bite of Courtney Lawes’s stunning tackling combined with a scrum that can hold its own give England hope.
Lawes’s fellow second-row Joe Launchbury got England going and followed the suit of Robshaw and Owen Farrell in the previous week’s 20-13 win over Australia by notching his first Test try, finishing off a line-out drive set up by Lawes’s catch and Robshaw’s control in the van. This came from penalties kicked to touch by England, clearly confident from the off they had the measure of a Pumas team playing their first match under new coach Daniel Hourcade and sadly accustomed to losing after being beaten twice at home by England in the summer and in all their subsequent Rugby Championship matches.
Towards the end of the first quarter it was 10-6, with Farrell’s conversion and a penalty to a penalty apiece for Argentina’s Nicolas Sanchez and Marcelo Bosch.
The visitors had 13 starters based with English and French clubs but Ashton knows Twickenham better than any of them even if it does not always appear that way. A try chance went begging after 19 minutes when the Saracens wing, who might have lost his place if Christian Wade or Marland Yarde had been fit, stepped inside the full-back Lucas Amorisino but had his ankle clipped and was held by up Juan Imhoff.
There was a muddle, too, when Ashton ran a wraparound off a scrum in the Argentina 22, but this at least led to England’s second try, in the 21st minute, when Ashton picked Farrell’s pop pass off the deck to feed Billy Twelvetrees who made it much too easily past a clutch of Puma tackles to score, with Farrell converting.The move also included a decoy run by Twelvetrees’ fellow centre Joel Tomkins. The feeling is Billy and Joel are not the ideal combination to start a fire for England’s outside backs but, while Manu Tuilagi is out with a torn chest muscle, this seems the likely duo to face the Blacks.
Ashton, to his relief, picked the right line after 33 minutes, scoring at the right-hand corner as Farrell exploited a short-side gap left by Argentina following another line-out. There was one first-half scrum featuring a threatening Argentina shove – testing an England front row that had been changed en masse from the Australia match, and in which Dylan Hartley could not have put his case for selection more forcefully – but unless they were going to push the men in white back 75 metres it could only be of limited usefulness.
Bosch missed a desperate penalty attempt from halfway and England led 24-6 at the interval. Five minutes into the second half the search for any kind of foothold was still the key as Sanchez chipped over a penalty from the 22m line and another from 40m in the 56th minute.
What can be said about England’s midfield and other areas of defence is they kept the Pumas in their own cattery for almost the entire 80 minutes. Tomkins did his bit in this regard. A procession of England substitutes came on to protect probable starters for next week; errors crept in. The two were not wholly connected. One gaffe was Farrell overdoing yet another penalty to touch, ruining a good position.
Another was when Lawes’s replacement Geoff Parling caught a line-out, but as Toby Flood, on for Twelvetrees, tried a pirouette towards the posts England lost the ball after the tackle. Farrell also had his first miss from the kicking tee, hitting a post from long range. Tom Wood fell foul of the referee a few times in the post-tackle contest.
But when a rare threat occurred in the home 22, England’s scrum forced a penalty out of the Pumas.
When another fresh face, Ben Morgan, battered through a thicket of tired tackles for England’s fourth try, converted by Flood, the singing started. Two out of two this autumn isn’t bad.
Room for improvement
This was Twickenham, not Utopia, as England's head coach Stuart Lancaster readily conceded, despite his team making it nine wins in 10 matches, and two out of two in their autumn programme.
"Every international team is looking for that complete 80-minute performance," Lancaster said after his team suffered a worrying dip in performance in the second half of the 31-12 win over Argentina. "You often see it from New Zealand, the top team, but that's what we're striving to get. And we know that we've got to improve in certain areas before we face them next week. We know that to win a World Cup you have to got to build a squad, not just a team. But the priority for us is to select the best team to win next week."
Lancaster's backs coach Andy Farrell said: "Argentina were hanging on by the skin of their teeth, we took the legs out of them in the first half. After that we lacked a bit of patience but there aren't many teams who have mauled Argentina like we did for Joe Launchbury's try. The confidence we got from beating Australia last week and in the first half this time will be massive for our forward pack to take into the New Zealand game."
Tries; Launchbury, Twelvetrees, Ashton, Morgan
Cons; Farrell (3), Flood.
Pens; Sanchez (4)