England expects, naturally enough. There is always an overpowering whiff of red rose assumption – some might say a sense of entitlement – when Argentina come to town for an international match at Twickenham, and while the Pumas know what it is to have the last laugh at the stadium, they never go into one of these contests as anything other than rank outsiders.
Now they are sliding down the world rankings faster than a novice climber might plummet down the south face of Mount Aconcagua, the expectation from the home crowd today will be greater than ever.
The South Americans finished third at the 2007 World Cup – the story of Agustin Pichot, Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Hernandez in that tournament was among the most heart-warming rugby tales ever told – and did for Scotland in qualifying for the knockout stage at the subsequent jamboree in 2011. But they have spent the last couple of years descending at the speed of light.
As things stand, they occupy 10th position and could be overhauled by both Tonga and Italy if they are not extremely careful. On the face of it, then, England should spend their afternoon running in tries from the back end of beyond, with the under-pressure backs Chris Ashton and Billy Twelvetrees helping themselves to a hat-trick apiece before heading off into the West car park for a celebratory glass of something depressingly healthy.
Mike Catt, the England attacking skills coach, was more tuned into the reality of the situation when he weighed up the prospects yesterday. “If you look at some of the stuff the Pumas played in the Rugby Championship just recently, it’s clear they’re developing a good off-loading game behind the scrum and can attack with real intensity,” he said. “You have to be really careful when you go up against them. If you give them scraps to play with, they love you for it.”
The Pumas’ statistical slippage is not quite what it seems: by joining Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in an expanded southern hemisphere Rugby Championship, they have saddled themselves with an annual fixture list far more testing than anything faced by the major European nations. It was always going to take the Argentines time to find their feet in such elevated company and as a consequence they were bound to struggle for results – and, by extension, ranking points.
Yet for all that, they may be in their weakest state for a decade thanks to a toxic mix of managerial upheaval and serious injury. They will be dangerous enough if the England forwards allow themselves to be sucked into a dogfight, as Catt pointed out, but all things considered, this is a precious opportunity for the red rose backline to indulge themselves ahead of the ultimate test against the All Blacks, who will come knocking on Twickenham’s door a week today.
Twelvetrees, playing in Catt’s old position of inside centre, holds the key. Before last week’s meeting with the Wallabies, the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, agreed that there was still a gap between the theory of Twelvetrees – a midfielder who ticks so many boxes with his size and strength in contact, the scope of his kicking game, the Hernandez-type quality of his running pass – and the reality. Sadly for the Gloucester player, his error-count against the Australians was the most public part of his performance.
“We know Billy can do it,” Catt insisted. “We’ve seen him do it. He’s a fantastic player. I couldn’t actually believe the things he said himself about his display against the Wallabies. When I read it, I thought: ‘Whoa! Hold on! It wasn’t that bad.’
“We all know he’s been playing his club rugby behind a struggling pack and that can make life difficult, but when you’re not getting the type of ball you want, you have to adapt. You have to say: ‘Right, if I can’t be the attacking man of the match, I’ll be the defensive man of the match. What’s the right thing for me to do for the team right now, under these circumstances?’ It’s the kind of thing you learn through experience.”
There was a late change to the England set-up yesterday when Ben Youngs, who was carried off the training field on Tuesday after suffering a heavy blow to his hip, failed a fitness test and withdrew from the bench. Danny Care of Harlequins, who knows his way around the international paddock after winning 41 caps over the last five years, finds himself restored to the ranks of the pine-shiners as a consequence.
Should the home side find themselves in trouble and strife at the start of the final quarter this afternoon, Care and his fellow replacements have it in them to turn things round with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole, Lions Test props both, are a very decent pair of reinforcements; Geoff Parling, another Lions tight forward, has an air of authority about him; Toby Flood, who has not always enjoyed his tangles with the Pumas, brings 50-odd caps’ worth of experience to the substitution mix. Slowly but surely, Lancaster is constructing a solid match-day squad.
What he needs to see today is an attacking performance that offers more than mere solidity. According to one set of statistics flying around yesterday, Twelvetrees and his fellow centre Joel Tomkins made the grand total of 14 metres between them against the Wallabies. Mike Brown, the Harlequins full-back, made nine times as much ground on his own.
“We all want to play like the All Blacks,” said Catt yesterday, “but building an attacking game takes time.” Leaving aside the question of whether England would be sensible, or even sane, to attempt a New Zealand style of rugby, even in the long term, it is vital for the confidence of Twelvetrees and company that they play their way into space this afternoon. If they spend the day lost in another maze of blind alleys and cul-de-sacs, the call for fresh personnel will become deafening.
Points to prove: Three players who must step up today if they want to keep their starting places for All Blacks Test
New scrum protocols have helped the Tynesider, who is fitter and more dynamic around the field than at any point in his career. Now seen as a genuine rival to Dan Cole on the tight-head side of the scrum.
England have struggled to settle on an inside centre since Will Greenwood called it a day almost a decade ago. Twelvetrees has the perfect skill set to be a transformative figure. It is time to deliver.
The wing was lucky to dodge the chop in the Six Nations, missed the tour of Argentina and failed to impress against the Wallabies. With Christian Wade closing in fast, he needs a performance.