Middle England in a rare muddle

Catt-Wilkinson axis loses its way as the blinkered approach produces mistake after mistake
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The Independent Online

Yes, it was raining hard at Twickenham and yes, the opposition tackled themselves to a standstill - literally in the case of some of the Argentinian forwards - but there is no disguising the fact that this was a desperately poor English display. At half-time the torrential downpour could be put forward as a reasonable explanat-ion of the numerous dropped balls and poorly directed passes; but even when conditions eased, the basic mistakes continued.

Yes, it was raining hard at Twickenham and yes, the opposition tackled themselves to a standstill - literally in the case of some of the Argentinian forwards - but there is no disguising the fact that this was a desperately poor English display. At half-time the torrential downpour could be put forward as a reasonable explanat-ion of the numerous dropped balls and poorly directed passes; but even when conditions eased, the basic mistakes continued.

Many of the problems seemed to stem from a malfunctioning area populated by Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt. Neither had games that they are likely to remember with any fondness. Their timing was all over the place and Wilkinson waited far too long to introduce some offensive kicks into his repertoire.

Ironically, the first one he attempted led directly to England's only try. The fact that Ben Cohen profited from a helpful post and pounced on the ricochet somehow summed up the afternoon.

For make no mistake, Argentina had very little to offer other than solidity in the set piece, a few dashes down the left flank from Ignaco Corleto and their trademark pick and drive game. Defensively they were spirited but in attack they had no width nor depth and as such posed very little threat.

In such circumstances England never looked in any danger. They had any amount of possession and territory (more and more as the game wore on) but failed to do much with it. Time and again, overlaps were scorned with Iain Balshaw the biggest culprit.

He spurned two gilt-edged opportunities to put a wide man away and instead chose to go for glory himself. Perhaps the excitement of his first start for his country unnerved him, but he needs to add sound decision-making to his undoubted running ability if he is to make the successful transition to international rugby that everyone expects of him.

Even such an experienced campaigner as Matt Dawson seemed to lose all peripheral vision. He booted the ball away aimlessly when a three - count them - man overlap presented itself.

The quickest man in the England team, Dan Luger, was up against a carthorse of an opponent in the form of Octavio Bartolucci. But it was only when Will Greenwood appeared and fixed two defenders with a beautifully timed pass that he was given a real opport-unity to run in space.

Most worryingly, the whole team looked unsure about how they were approaching the game. Early on they attempted to play with the ball in hand in truly deplorable conditions, whilst in the second half they kicked for territory - perhaps under instructions - when the weather had improved and clear handling opportunities presented themselves.

Argentina were not good enough to get near to repeating Scotland's feats in the rain of Murrayfield last April. But it does look as if this England go better on the top of the ground rather than when they have to cope with the odd cloudburst or two.

After the game the players and management, understand-ably, stressed that they had won comfortably against tricky opponents without conceding a point. For public consumption this is fine but behind closed doors I doubt that they would be quite so sanguine; certainly not if they are as self-critical as they claim to be.

Selection this week will be fascinating because it will be a clear indicator of exactly what Clive Woodward considers to be his best team when facing top-quality opposition. The pack look reasonably settled but behind the scrum there are any number of finely balanced decsions to be made. Bracken or Dawson, Greenwood or Catt, Balshaw or Perry?

It has been quite a time since England have had such an embarrassment of riches, but the right balance has to be struck. South Africa will prov-ide a huge opportunity for this England squad - three consec-utive wins over Southern Hem-isphere sides do not appear too frequently in the annals of rugby in this part of the world.

Another win next week will consign all thoughts of strikes and pay to the far reaches of the national psyche. Sound selection should ensure success.

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