Nick Townsend: Debut boy's interception pass a haunting image of a coach in decline

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The Independent Online

Six days after England were dismembered by the All Blacks, there were occasional semblances here that the body of England had been sewn together again. By the end, the impression was that the operation had been overseen by Baron Frankenstein.

The surgeon concerned, Andy Robinson, disappeared immediately after the referee, Kelvin Deaker, called time, and strode straight to the England changing room, as the visitors celebrated with abandon. "Andy Robinson out?" the paying customers demanded an insight into newspaper headlines as they digested the hosts' seventh successive defeat. It was actually a rhetorical question. They knew in their hearts that the game is almost certainly up for the head coach, even if not in the immediate future.

There was one moment when the TV cameras, scrutinising the coaches as much as the play, caught England's first élite rugby director, Rob Andrew, shivering. It is likely to be the man who was sitting just beneath him who is likely to find himself out in the cold.

The man himself appeared on Sky TV to insist, in unnecessarily belligerent terms, that, yes, he would be here again next week, when South Africa are the visitors. Yet, those woebegone features betray a man whose stature has diminished to a point which makes his position near untenable.

This was a result which from the early minutes was about as predictable as Jonny Wilkinson suffering yet another setback. Though the visitors had to withstand a pummelling from England's forwards in the final seconds, with the crowd exhorting their side to claim a draw they barely merited, Argentina remained resolute.

The Pumas, with their Europe-based players, will regard this as another scratching post on the road to finding a welcome within an expanded Six Nations, if not the Tri Nations. There was much to admire about their game, though they could hardly have anticipated finding England in such a slough of form. Nor could they imagine that fly-half Charlie Hodgson would be replaced by a 21-year-old debutant from Newcastle, Toby Flood, who, within two minutes had seen his pass intercepted by Federico Todeschini.

That vastly experienced Puma, 10 years Flood's senior, who had replaced the injured Gonzalo Tiesi and switched positions with Felipe Contepomi, who had started at fly-half, dashed half the length of the pitch to score Argentina's first try at Twickenham. He converted it with aplomb, which was no surprise as his kicking was impeccable.

Robinson maintained that there had been positives about England, and it is true that Brian Ashton's appointment as backs coach has, to an extent, fashioned a team who can cry freedom when in possession. From their embryonic state, the features of the innovative strategist are becoming apparent. Even in the defeat by the All Blacks there was evidence of improvement, with sufficient incursions, to engender optimism.

It is facile to simply attribute England's failings to their own errors. In any game, that is the last refuge of the desperate. coach. The best teams force errors, and avoid them. However, Robinson can only have sat with an inner fury as his team squandered possession.

It began so curiously low-key. England started like a man nursing a hangover. The collective heads were still throbbing from last week's events here. There was a lack of communication, and they failed to exhilarate a crowd who remained stoic to the end. Robinson's men were edgy, nervous, and the errors continued where they had left off last Sunday, only on this occasion they were not punished so readily. Not until the second half, anyway. The action was only enlivened by Ben Cohen and Mario Ledesma exchanging views and punches on the touchline.

Not until Paul Sackey floated magnificently through a unusually threadbare rearguard just after the half hour was there a suspicion that the head coach's prayers could be answered. Robinson puffed his cheeks and exchanged relieved smiles with Andrew. It was an expression that was not to last long.

The penalties against his side began to accumulate - 13 by the end - and then that defining moment, the Todeschini try after the unfortunate Flood, having been hailed by the England supporters, handed the game to him. Robinson shook his head, though later he defended the tiro. "It happens," he said of Flood, who also failed with a conversion after Iain Balshaw had scored a scintillating try, which in other circumstances would be regarded as one of the high points of England's afternoon.

Instead, the images that remain are those of an errant pass by a fly-half as he starts out on the England road. And an England coach whose career may have reached a cross-roads.