The bone-crunching, antler-rutting finish to this uninspiring clash of low- to middle-ranking nations was right up England's street. Protecting their line and a seven-point lead, and repelling Argentina's added-time line-out drive, was something Steve Borthwick's side recognised as within their capabilities.
Show an English forward an object to be tackled at close quarters and he will do it all day long. Show an English back line a three-on-two overlap or a loose ball looking for a home in the opposition in-goal and they panic. That, at least, seems to be the way of it at Twickenham, two thirds of the way through an autumn series blighted by injuries to leading men and unconvincing performances by many of their understudies.
Let it be said that England's slide to eighth in the world rankings was under way long before Martin Johnson became manager and installed Borthwick as his captain. There is little sense in pointing a finger at the likes of Duncan Bell, who was – let's be blunt – written off as Test material years ago. He went through 80 minutes' hard labour against the vaunted Argentina scrum yesterday, having shinned up the ladder of opportunity created by crocked props.
Bell described his presence in England's squad as "surreal". Another wounding defeat after the previous week's 18-9 reverse against Australia was a very real prospect until the Bath wing Matt Banahan's third try in this year's three meetings with the sixth-ranked Pumas edged England ahead in the 70th minute. Banahan, the much tattooed giant, gave Argentina the needle with a cool one-handed finish behind the posts after a rare move of expansiveness featuring darts by James Haskell and Borthwick and right-to-left passes by Shane Geraghty, Mark Cueto and, after a crucial pause to flummox the cover, Lewis Moody.
That and Jonny Wilkinson's conversion were the only scores of a second half which began at 9-9.
"It didn't matter how, we had to get the result," said Banahan, revealing the England mindset, as if it wasn't obvious. Johnson and Borthwick hinted at harsh words during the interval. "Ultimately it became a dogfight," said Johnson, who blamed individual errors, knock-ons, bad kicking and "being a little conservative" – oh, and Argentina getting away with bits and bobs at the breakdown. New Zealand are the opponents next Saturday. "That will be a big old challenge," said Lewis Moody, the flanker whose almost superhuman energy drove England forward when all else was failing.
Moody cannot be a one-man team, even so. Something is wrong – injuries or not – when a superb all-court flanker such as Tom Croft is virtually anonymous. Croft was withdrawn for the defensive maestro, Joe Worsley, with a quarter of the match left. Selection was a strength of Johnson's last season but it has taken a match and a half to realise Ugo Monye is not a Test full-back. Delon Armitage and Olly Morgan are injured but Ben Foden was available. If England wanted Monye's pace they should have deployed it away from blush-inducing fumbles under the high ball.
Twickenham was singing happily by the end but the crowd booed and slow- handclapped when Geraghty kicked out on the full after about half an hour. Kicking was not a flawed tactic per se, with a blustery wind and a wet ball. And one spilled catch by Argentina's captain, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, allowed Mark Cueto a free run down the right. Embarrassingly for the Sale wing, he was easily overhauled by the chasing full-back, Horacio Agulla.
Argentina also kicked often, as any sensible team would with Banahan prone to being turned and Monye out of his comfort zone. All kicks and no passes made England a dull team to watch, and they should not fall back on the law of unintended consequences. When Wilkinson wellied one of many garryowens after 15 minutes, Dan Hipkiss chased willingly but four bigger Pumas blocked the ball. OK, England won a penalty a phase or two later, and Wilkinson made it 6-3 from far out. But two wrongs do not make a right.
"We know England are playing with this structure of four forwards in the middle and two on either side," said Fernandez Lobbe, unadmiringly. "Maybe they deserved to win, because we made one more mistake than them." Haskell, at least, showed some gumption from No 8 and deserves another chance against New Zealand.
Wilkinson, who tackled superbly, corkscrewed a drop-goal to open the scoring, and he kicked two penalties before half-time; Martin Rodriguez, the sole debutant in a side missing three backs of great eminence – Juan Martin Hernandez, Felipe Contepomi and Ignacio Corleto – kicked three while missing twice from long range. Wilkinson missed four minutes into the second half, then twice more. Now at full-back, Cueto was picked off by Lucas Borges as England attacked from a line-out deep in the Argentina 22. Hipkiss tossed a pass to where he expected Monye would be, but wasn't.
So in their private mini-series in 2009, England have finished 2-1 winners over opponents they will next meet in the 2011 World Cup. A small mercy, perhaps, but not one which will worry the All Blacks.
England U Monye; M Cueto, D Hipkiss, S Geraghty, M Banahan; J Wilkinson (A Goode, 74), P Hodgson (D Care, 74); T Payne (P Doran-Jones, 62), D Hartley (S Thompson, 68), D Bell, L Deacon, S Borthwick (capt), T Croft (J Worsley, 68), J Haskell, L Moody.
Argentina H Agulla; L Borges, G Tiesi, M Rodriguez, M Comuzzi; S Fernandez, A Lalanne (A Figuerola, 74); R Roncero, M Ledesma,M Scelzo (M Ayerza, 66), E Lozada (M Carizza, 55), P Albacete, T Leonardi, JM Fernandez Lobbe (capt), A Abadie (A Campos, 33).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Man for man marking: England
Ugo Monye 4/10
Put it this way – an ironic cheer when your No 15 catches a missed drop-goal is not a good sign. A fine winger, but not a Test full-back. Went back to the wing in the second half, unsurprisingly.
Mark Cueto 6/10
Safe under the high ball in yet another game of kick-tennis. An early break might have led to that rarest and most delightful of things – a try. Needless to say, it didn't. A later break led to an attacking line-out, which in turn led to... a penalty for Argentina. Switched to full-back.
Dan Hipkiss 5/10
Offered the square root of nothing in attack, but that wasn't a personal disgrace. More a consequence of a collective one.
Shane Geraghty 5/10
To see someone who can cause havoc at club level kicking the ball so much wasn't particularly cheering. Particularly when he didn't kick it that well. A funny thing – the crowd cheered when he showed half a hint of a suggestion of the shadow of a sidestep. Are they easily pleased, desperate, or both?
Matt Banahan 5/10
Scored the try that won the match, but as someone wrote, if Banahan is the answer, what's the question? Maybe it's: 'Which international wing has the slowest turning circle?' Harsh, maybe, but his flank looked exposed on more than one occasion.
Jonny Wilkinson 5/10
Dropped a goal, dropped on the ball in defence, dropped a succession of Puma forwards sent pummelling in his direction. As per. Didn't kick that well from hand or from the ground, though.
Paul Hodgson 5/10
Brought in to add snap at the breakdown, but when the ball being presented isn't so much slow as positively funereal there is very little any No 9 can do. Kicked it a lot. Ho hum.
Tim Payne 6/10
Conceded a penalty for 'not binding' on to Martin Scelzo when Nigel Owens was on the other side of the scrum and, replays suggested, the hulking great Argentinian let go and went down first. Conceded another for 'pulling down' when he was already having his head shoved where the sun don't shine. The prop's lot. Taken off after 60 minutes.
Dylan Hartley 6/10
His opposite number, Mario Ledesma, was hurt at the first scrum. Gets a tick for that, and a couple more for the tickings- off he kept giving his pack, his captain included. Line-outs were pretty solid and he had a fight with Rodrigo Roncero, which drew blood and counted as entertainment.
Duncan Bell 6/10
About twice the size of his opposite number, Roncero, in a pleasingly old-fashioned tighthead-loosehead match-up. Matched up to his task well and, novelty of novelties for an English prop, stayed on the field for a full 80 minutes.
Louis Deacon 5/10
Could be the personification of this England team – big, hard-working, honest... and a little lacking in inspiration.
Steve Borthwick 5/10
It's never a good sign when your captain spends more time talking to the referee than to his team. Borthwick had to try to clarify Owens's slightly gnomic rulings at the scrum and the breakdown, but his men needed a rocket up their collective posterior.
Tom Croft 6/10
Major line-out presence and as busy around the field as any world-class flanker – and he is one, really – would be. Substituted, surprisingly.
Lewis Moody 6/10
His charge-down set up Wilkinson's drop-goal and he charged about energetically thereafter. His handling was as ropey as everyone else's, but at least he set up the try with a nicely delayed pass. Man of a particularly humdrum match.
James Haskell 6/10
Solid under the high ball, utterly numbskulled at the odd ruck, utterly effective in winning turnovers at others. Also dynamic off the back of the scrum, if in a rather unsophisticated way.
Joe Worsley On for Croft, a defensive player for an attacking one, for the last quarter with the score at 9-9. Brave call.
Paul Doran-Jones On for Payne. First Test scrum went... backwards, though more on Bell's side. Faced Marcos Ayerza, who was out of position, and did well.
Steve Thompson A 50th cap, won in the last 10 minutes.
Andy Goode On for Wilkinson and Danny Care on for the other half-back, Hodgson, for the last five minutes.
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