Martin Johnson has precious little interest in the world rankings regularly published by the International Rugby Board. "It's a list," he said yesterday, "and it takes up precisely none of my time." Might this have something to do with England's slippage from fifth to eighth, their lowest recorded position, since Johnson succeeded Brian Ashton as top dog last year? Apparently not. According to the manager, he would be just as disinterested if his team were lording it over the Springboks and the All Blacks as the No 1 act in the sport.
Unfortunately, those who pay upwards of £70 to watch England play – and, as often as not, lose – at Twickenham are beginning to wonder whether this sorry position in the bottom half of rugby's Top 10 hit parade is in danger of becoming the norm. Defeat against Argentina this afternoon would certainly cement it, and while the movers and shakers at the Rugby Football Union might not feel the need to ask awkward questions of their main man if the worst comes to the worst, the great unwashed in the stands would surely see it differently.
In the public perception, defeats by the Pumas are unacceptable. Losses to South Africa and New Zealand are only to be expected and failures against Australia can just about be explained away, but Argentina? Please. Poor Andy Robinson discovered this much the last time the South Amercians visited London in 2006, and notwithstanding their magnificent third place at the World Cup in France, general opinion has not changed to any significant extent in the years since.
The public are wrong, of course: Argentina have been a very serious proposition for a good while now and but for injuries to their best midfielders, Juan Martin Hernandez and Felipe Contepomi, they would start today's game as favourites. They are, after all, ranked two places higher than their hosts, and they always travel with a forward pack capable of dominating anyone and everyone at close quarters. Yet Twickenham Man will not buy it. If these Pumas successfully squeeze the pips out of England up front and somehow compensate for their lack of firepower outside the scrum, there will be hell to pay.
Johnson is anticipating a wet-weather Test, of the kind England generally won when their manager was wrestling with opponents on the field rather than trying to second-guess them off it. "It will be a game that requires hard graft and a high level of concentration," he said during his eve-of-match address. "A six-point lead in the conditions we're told to expect will be a big lead, so we'll have to be smart, especially in the kicking department. We can't afford to give away silly penalties, or concede possession in silly ways."
Inevitably, he will look to Jonny Wilkinson to dictate matters. The celebrated outside-half has a long history of controlling events when the participants are being blasted by the elements – during the triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign he was a whole lot happier in the wet than in the dry – and it is difficult to imagine the 23-year-old student Santiago Fernandez bringing a similar brand of game-management to bear on this afternoon's proceedings. The newcomer may be full of promise, but as we speak, Fernandez is no Hernandez.
But for Wilkinson to prosper by pinning the Pumas in their own half and kicking goals by the bucketload, the England forwards will have to give him some ball. The strength of the Argentine scrum will inevitably make life complicated in this respect– the red-rose pack will be under intense pressure at the set-piece – and if Patricio Albacete is half as effective here as he was during the last World Cup, the home side will find themselves sorely tested at the line-out, too.
"I think the players understand the nature of the challenge," Johnson said. "I could sit down and lecture them for half an hour at a time, but when I was a player, I preferred to be left alone in the 24 hours before a game. There are very few magic speeches I remember from coaches – Ian McGeechan with the Lions in 1997 sticks in the mind, but there aren't too many others. By the time a coach gets to point seven in the build-up to a game, people tend to have lost focus."
England's focus against the Wallabies a week ago certainly went missing, both in the thud-and blunder contest up front and behind the scrum in midfield. Even the defensive discipline, which underpinned whatever small improvement was made during this year's Six Nations Championship, disappeared at important moments against the Australians, who scored two cheap tries in winning the game. It goes without saying that any free gifts offered to the Pumas will be gratefully received.
As Johnson pointed out, it is not only the visitors who have been hit by mass absenteeism: if Argentina are missing the full-back Lucas Amorosino and the wing Gonzalo Camacho as well as Hernandez and Contepomi, the injuries affecting England are even more many and varied. But again, this is not something the Twickenhamites are likely to take into consideration in the aftermath of any defeat. England are expected to win this game, and win it well. This expectation may be the product of a superiority complex that has no basis in rugby logic, but it is there all the same. Much to the management's discomfort.
Battle for front-row supremacy
Tim Payne v Martin Scelzo Even when Andrew Sheridan is fit and functioning well, Tim Payne considers himself worthy of a starting place. Today, he has the chance to walk the walk against a genuinely formidable set-piece operator in the tight-head specialist from Buenos Aires.
Dylan Hartley v Mario Ledesma A serious test for the man expected to be England's hooker at the next World Cup. Hartley is a gifted footballer, but inexperienced; Ledesma is equally talented and, at 36, he is the outstanding No 2 in the international game. Parity will be a triumph for Hartley.
Duncan Bell v Rodrigo Roncero Roncero may be a qualified doctor, but he spends more time dismantling people than piecing them back together again. Bell is a substantial citizen, but against an opponent as destructive as the Paris-based Puma, he will need more than size on his side.
A life less ordinary: Nigel Owens
One of the most interesting characters on the Twickenham pitch today will be the referee, Nigel Owens. One of the few openly gay men in the sport, Owens has
revealed a troubled past and battles with depression. After being bullied at school, he suffered from bulimia and a steroid addiction, and at his lowest point, in 1996, attempted suicide. The Welshman, who has previously worked as a comedian, officiated the infamous "Bloodgate" Heineken Cup match between Harlequins and Leinster earlier this year. He also takes charge of the match between Ireland and South Africa at Croke Park later this month.
Today at Twickenham: How they line up
U Monye (Quins) 15
M Cueto (Sale) 14
D Hipkiss (Leic) 13
S Geraghty (N'hant) 12
M Banahan (Bath) 11
J Wilkinson (T'lon) 10
P Hodgson (Irish) 9
T Payne (Wasps) 1
D Hartley (N'hant) 2
D Bell (Bath) 3
L Deacon (Leicester) 4
S Borthwick (Sar, c) 5
T Croft (Leicester) 6
L Moody (Leicester) 7
J Haskell (Stade Fr) 8
Replacements: S Thompson, P Doran-Jones, C Lawes, J Worsley, D Care, A Goode, A Erinle
H Agulla (Brive) 15
L Borges (Albi) 14
G Tiesi (H'quins) 13
M Rodriguez (Ros'o) 12
M Comuzzi (Pucara) 11
S Fernandez (Hindu) 10
A Lalanne (L Irish) 9
R Roncero (St Franc) 1
M Ledesma (Cl'mont) 2
M Scelzo (Clermont) 3
E Lozada (Toulon) 4
P Albacete (T'louse) 5
T Leonardi (SIC) 6
A Abadie (Rovigo) 7
J F Lobbe (Toulon, c) 8
Replacements: A Basualdo, M Ayerza, M Carizza, A Campos, A Figuerola, B Urdapilleta, F Aramburu
Referee: N Owens (Wales)
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