No one died of shock when England ran out of attacking ideas – or rather, ran on without attacking ideas – against an Argentine side featuring two new flankers plucked out of playschool, a pair of half-backs sharing the grand total of seven caps and a goal-kicking debutant in the centre. The way they are performing these days, the England team would struggle to put a try past Mothercare. But this latest in a long line of misfires was not without its surprises, the most notable of which was the expression of utter despair on the managerial features both during and after the proceedings.
Martin Johnson (below) had not been in the sunniest of moods even before kick-off, giving very short shrift to a television interviewer who had the nerve to ask him a question. By close of play, he looked ready to thump someone. In between, he could be seen suffering the full range of negative emotions, from stunned disbelief to barely concealed disgust. "It was," he confessed when he had finished kicking the Twickenham cat around the dressing room, "a tough game to watch."
A crowd of almost 79,000 felt the same way, so acutely that they barely watched at all. Suckered by the Rugby Football Union, those masters of cringe, into performing a pre-match advertising stunt on behalf of the kit manufacturer responsible for dressing England in purple, the paying public were bored to the marrow so quickly that they spent the first 20 minutes turning their silly little pieces of coloured card into paper aeroplanes and lobbing them towards the pitch. As a result, there were purple patches all over the field, except where Johnson's players happened to be at any given moment. England don't do purple patches, even when the patches are being created for them.
It was difficult to remember a moment, even during the series of horrible defeats this time last year, when the manager looked as bereft as he did here. "There were always going to be mistakes in those weather conditions," he said, referring to the high winds that buffeted the stadium and left Jonny Wilkinson himself looking like a hit-and-hope merchant. "But the individual errors we made made it impossible for us to generate momentum. There's no denying that it wasn't great, but it's where we are." And where would that be, pray? Up the Ganges without a paddle sounds about right.
Those Twickenhamites who saw just enough of the first half to boo the team back down the tunnel at the interval may not have understood that for some considerable time it has been no disgrace to struggle against Argentina. The Pumas won in London in 2006 and some of those who played at the weekend, not least the magnificent forwards Patricio Albacete and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, were serious about staging a repeat performance. Had either of the South Americans' injured midfield maestros, Juan Martin Hernandez or Felipe Contepomi, been present, they would undoubtedly have triumphed.
Even in their absence, England needed a late try from Matt Banahan that might easily have been disallowed for a dodgy pass in the build-up, an even later last-ditch tackle from the energetic James Haskell, and a goal-line stand at the death – "We spent the last few minutes fighting for about three inches of Twickenham turf," Johnson acknowledged – to make it home. This was no revelation in itself, however. The Pumas did not start the game two ranking places above their hosts because someone at the International Rugby Board pressed the wrong button on his pocket calculator.
The alarming aspect was the fathomless depth of the poverty of England's attack against opponents so inexperienced in so many important areas – a team who had spent so little time together, their defensive patterns were based on nothing more than blind faith and guesswork. That Johnson's most effective performer by a country mile was the Leicester flanker Lewis Moody, one of the world's best players without the ball, said virtually all that needed saying. In possession, they were arid, barren, sterile ... anything, in fact, but productive.
This begs a question. Can it be the case that Brian Smith, the man employed to make things happen in this department, is not up to much, or is it that he is not being listened to anywhere near closely enough? Given that the Australian has a proven track record of producing teams who play fast, dynamic, high-intensity rugby, the second possibility is infinitely more likely. If England are to make the best of themselves in the 20 months or so leading into the next World Cup, Smith the radical needs to make himself heard above the voices of conservatism.
Johnson was not terribly forthcoming on who said what to whom during the interval, although he was quick to stress that the teacups remained in one piece and the hair-dryer stayed attached to the wall. "What good does it do to give someone a blasting when you know that letting frustration get the better of you kills the whole thing?" he asked, not unreasonably. Whatever the details, England returned to the field in a more urgent frame of mind and for much of the third quarter, they had the South Americans on the back foot.
Both Haskell, who made many a hard yard at No 8, and the hooker Dylan Hartley were significant contributors to the general upturn, but largely, it was down to the decision to move the wretched Ugo Monye out of the full-back role he was ill-equipped to perform in the first place, being a wing pure and simple. The trials and tribulations he suffered under the high ball were of Old Testament proportions – more than once, a calamitous combination of poor positioning and terminal Teflonitis dropped England in the mire – and it was only when he switched places with Mark Cueto that the overpowering whiff of a series of accidents waiting to happen disappeared on the breeze.
All things considered, though, this improvement did not add up to much. Banahan's try seven minutes from the end of normal time was a decent enough effort, sparked by Haskell's initial surge and a nicely timed run from Steve Borthwick that allowed him to take the ball at speed and fracture the Pumas' defensive line, but this isolated success was nowhere near sufficient to erase the memory of what had gone before. And what came after was truly ghastly: fumbles, wrong options, daft kicks out on the full. England ended the game on their rear ends and were deeply grateful to the referee Nigel Owens when he called a halt to the Argentine siege with the ball barely a metre from the red-rose line. One last delivery from the ruck would have earned the tourists a draw.
"Had that been a World Cup quarter-final or an important pool match, the result would have been enough," remarked Johnson, attempting to look on the bright side. Unfortunately, the two countries will indeed meet at the next global gathering in New Zealand, and on this evidence, England will start as second favourites in a two-horse race.
England: Try Banahan; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 2; Drop goal Wilkinson. Argentina: Penalties Rodriguez 3.
England: U Monye (Harlequins); M Cueto (Sale), D Hipkiss (Leicester), S Geraghty (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath); J Wilkinson (Toulon), P Hodgson (London Irish); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Bell (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), J Haskell (Stade Francais). Replacements: J Worsley (Wasps) for Croft, 65; P Doran-Jones (Gloucester) for Payne, 65; S Thompson (Brive) for Hartley 71; D Care (Harlequins) for Hodgson, 79; A Goode (Brive) for Wilkinson, 80.
Argentina: H Agulla (Brive); L Borges (Albi), G Tiesi (Harlequins), M Rodriguez (Rosario), M Comuzzi (Pucara); S Fernandez (Hindu), A Lalanne (London Irish); R Roncero (Stade Francais), M Ledesma (Clermont Auvergne), M Scelzo (Clermont Auvergne), E Lozada (Toulon), P Albacete (Toulouse), T Leonardi (SIC), A Abadie (Rovigo), J M Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon). Replacements: A Campos (Montauban) for Abadie, 36; M Carizza (Biarritz) for Lozada, 55; M Ayerza (Leicester) for Scelzo, 68; A Figuerola (CASI) for Lalanne, 80.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content