I sat in Twickenham’s south stand for the England-Australia game last Saturday, right at the very top – a different kind of perch from the usual coach’s position. From my vantage point, the rugby was disappointingly one-dimensional for much of the contest, to the point of being disengaging. If England hadn’t made the most of their forward domination by scoring those tries after the interval, they might have taken a real kicking from the supporters.
Yes, they were rusty: it’s an occupational hazard when you go more than six months between major Tests, as England had done on this occasion. But having made heavy weather of things for 40 minutes, it was vital that they hit their straps in the second half.
These current Wallabies are far from the greatest we’ve seen but victory over them takes a whole heap of pressure off Stuart Lancaster and his players.
The game reinforced one of rugby’s great stereotypes: the image of England, all power and discipline up front, bringing their brute force to bear on a bunch of rebellious Aussie larrikins living off their wits. For most of the match England were certainly winning scrum penalties for fun. When you’re continually bossing the set piece and getting full value from the referee, it’s difficult to resist playing one-dimensional rugby. It’s the mindset that says: “This is working for us, so why do anything else?”
Needless to say, today’s game with Argentina will throw up a different set of issues. The Pumas are wafer-thin in certain positions, but on a good day they are capable of causing major disruption pretty much anywhere in the rugby world. We also know that whatever happens at the line-out, or out wide, or in midfield, they will pride themselves on putting in a performance at the scrum.
Having said that, things are tough for the Pumas, largely because there is no place they can call home. I don’t see the sports economy in Argentina being strong enough to support professional club rugby on a domestic basis – not while the French are throwing their euros around with such abandon – and, as the Samoans have discovered, you can have all the talent and potential in the world yet struggle for consistency when your players are spread all over the globe.
I’m not even sure the Pumas are playing their rugby in the right place. Joining Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in a southern hemisphere Rugby Championship is all well and good, but unless their players start featuring in Super 15 rugby in heavy numbers, they could unravel at Test level. Premiership clubs are beginning to look elsewhere for their overseas recruits – not because the Argentines aren’t up to it, but because they are not available often enough.
At London Irish, we took a close look at Nicolas Sanchez, who plays outside-half for the Pumas today. He’s a quality 10, but ultimately we were going to be carrying the cost of bringing him on board while he was off playing Test rugby for the first three months of the season.
It seems to me that more and more European teams are suddenly sidestepping the Pumas when as recently as three or four years ago, they’d have been scratching each others’ eyes out for the best Puma signatures. We get any number of CVs from good Argentinian players, many of them seeking deals on a pro rata basis. It’s a solution of sorts, but it doesn’t do much for continuity.
England should win today, with something to spare. Argentina? An honourable defeat at Twickenham would, in the grand scheme of things, be the least of their problems.