Recent history tells us that New Zealand are roughly 30 points better than Argentina – a figure that might be of some interest to the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, in the build-up to the “vengeance match” with the All Blacks at Twickenham this weekend. It equates precisely to the number of minutes Lancaster’s players spent in their collective shell against the Pumas: half an hour of dither and dross that almost amounted to an act of self-sabotage.
Lancaster indicated yesterday that his review of the 31-12 victory would be short, sharp and over and done with well before lights out tonight. Spare a thought, therefore, for Chris Ashton on Monday evening. It is not easy to sleep when your ears are burning. If the struggling Saracens wing is granted the dubious pleasure of confronting Julian Savea or Charles Piutau in five days’ time, it is because the red-rose cupboard at No 14 is in an advanced state of Old Mother Hubbardness.
The coach was not at all sure that Christian Wade of Wasps would recover from the hamstring injury that deprived him of a home Test debut against the South Americans in time to feature in the last of the autumn fixtures. Lancaster was certain about this much, however: if Wade fails to train tomorrow, his chances will be something close to zero. He would then have no realistic option but to stick with Ashton, who made a magnificent mess of one try-scoring opportunity in the first half of Saturday’s contest and very nearly fouled up another.
This nonsense sat uneasily with the rest of England’s performance before the interval: a dynamic 40 minutes’ worth of high-tempo rugby in which Billy Twelvetrees, under every bit as much pressure as Ashton, transformed the team’s attacking game with the rich variety of his midfield passing; in which Dylan Hartley’s mix of skill, physicality and controlled aggression – emphasis on controlled – marked him out anew as the best hooker in the country; in which the red-rose pack as a whole achieved the not inconsiderable feat of mauling the powerful Pumas into their own in-goal area. Not once, but twice.
England played with a combination of pace and patience reminiscent, albeit vaguely, of the All Blacks themselves: with Hartley, the locks Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes and the blind-side flanker Tom Wood very much to the fore in taking the forward battle to the visitors, the pack earned Twelvetrees the right to play – to open up space with passes long and short, wide and narrow. Playing on the front foot, the Gloucester centre provided unchallengeable evidence of how much he could mean to this team.
But my, how the levels dropped after the interval, which England had reached 24-6 to the good with three tries in the bag. Tempo, intensity and precision gave way to the turgid, the soporific, the slapdash. Juan Manuel Leguizamon, a captain of considerable character, dragged the Pumas back into the contest with the help of his most experienced tight forwards, Marcos Ayerza and Patricio Albacete, and was perfectly justified in suggesting that, had the cards fallen slightly differently midway through the last quarter, the final result might have been in doubt.
Nicolas Sanchez had reduced the tourists’ deficit to 12 points with a couple of penalties when, with a dozen or so minutes left on the clock, the home side went seriously wonky. Owen Farrell fluffed a penalty punt, Albacete beat Geoff Parling in the air to reclaim possession, Ben Foden watched a long kick dribble into touch and England lost the line-out on their own throw… as a result of all this, the Pumas had the smell of whitewash in their nostrils for the first time in the game. But for the butterfingered inadequacy of the substitute back-rower Benjamin Macome, they would probably have put themselves within a single score of their hosts.
None of this was lost on Lancaster, who was suitably downbeat afterwards, but the straight-talking Wood was the man who really told it how it was. “We won’t beat the All Blacks with a 40-minute performance, or indeed with a half-hearted one,” he said. “We’ll need to play with all our nous and physicality to give ourselves a chance, because this is the game that really matters to New Zealand after what happened to them at Twickenham a year ago.
“I think the biggest thing for us in beating them then was our breakdown intensity – that and the fact that we didn’t waste any bullets. We put them under a lot of pressure at half-back and made very few errors. We’ll have to match that effort this time because it will be full-on. The intent was there to play that kind of game against the Pumas, but we didn’t apply ourselves in the second half.
“Having said that, I believe we’re developing something with substance and sustainability in this group and we’re looking forward to meeting the All Blacks because it’s important to us that we beat them again. We don’t want to be in the position where we declare a national holiday every time we win against New Zealand. We want to be in the position where they come to us as underdogs.”
If Wood struggled to stay on the right side of the French referee Pascal Gaüzère, whose excellent officiating marked him out as a worthy contemporary of his countrymen Romain Poite and Jérôme Garcès, so too did Leguizamon. It is often the way when highly motivated and deeply determined players redouble their efforts in an attempt to right the wrongs they see unfolding around them, single-handedly if necessary. There are times when penalty concessions are as much a badge of honour as a blight.
All things considered, England will be better for this taste of the curate’s egg. The good parts outweighed the bad, although it would have been a close-run thing had Ben Morgan not scored a late try off the bench with a trademark rumble through a fractured Argentine defence. If their back division failed to respond to the puppeteering artistry of Twelvetrees nearly often enough, the pack is beginning to look formidable.
New Zealand will pose many different challenges, of an entirely different magnitude, but if England keep them honest at close quarters and whip up a storm registering Force 10 on the Tom Wood Scale of Breakdown Ferocity, a real game of rugby is likely to break out. In which case, it will be down to execution at key moments – the taking of chances. Which leads us all the way back to Mr Ashton, does it not?
* Matt Mullan, the Wasps loose-head prop, has been drafted into England’s training squad as cover for Mako Vunipola.
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