Argentina always pitch up at Twickenham with nothing but fresh air in their collective wallet, and generally leave it with a big fat zero on the scoreboard. Sixteen years ago, they were slaughtered 51-0 and achieved very little apart from reducing Paul Ackford, the Harlequins lock, to his component parts during a dust-up between the packs. A decade later, they went down 19-0 in a deluge. Only once, in 1996, did they manage to register points, giving their hosts a serious run for their money before losing 20-18. It is a sign of these troubled times that England would happily settle for a similar outcome this afternoon.
The Pumas represent a significant threat to the world champions. So significant, it might be argued, that a first victory for the tourists in London could easily send the England set-up into meltdown. Despite six consecutive defeats - the worst run in more than 30 years - there is no desire among the Rugby Football Union hierarchy to make an example of Andy Robinson, the head coach. But events impact on professional sport in the same way they impact on politics, and if the 75,000-plus spectators give voice to their frustration today, who would dare predict the consequences? Robinson may not admit it in so many words, but this is a deeply uncomfortable fixture.
Yesterday, the salt-of-the-earth West Countryman oozed conviction. "We always approach a Test match expecting to win," he said. "Losing doesn't enter our heads, because if we're accurate in what we do, we'll go well." Yes, yes. But defeat in this game is even more unthinkable than usual, surely? "International sport is about putting yourself up there - we're in it because we love the challenge," he replied. "I'd love things to be predictable but they aren't. If I couldn't cope with that, I'd have walked away four, five, six months ago - even two years ago, when I first took the job."
There has been much talk this week, from the attack strategist, Brian Ashton, as well as from Robinson, about the positive aspects to be drawn from the defeat by New Zealand - a reverse of record proportions. It should be remembered. Reassuringly from the perspective of those who place more store on results than on performance, Martin Corry sees it differently. Much as the Pumas are sick to the back teeth of being congratulated for their resourcefulness in the face of sporting destitution, the captain is tired of being lauded for his frequent exercises in heroic futility.
"Whatever pressure we find ourselves under comes from the way we played against the All Blacks, which wasn't good enough," he said, bluntly. "Yes, there were some positives to take from the game, but we still lost, and lost comprehensively. If I'm being honest, we didn't cause New Zealand sufficient trouble up front, and as this is exactly the area where the real battle will occur in this game, we'll have to be more streetwise. The Puma forwards will pose some difficult questions - no team in the world matches them in the emphasis they place on their driving game and their work around the fringes. And I haven't even mentioned the scrum. There is a fantastic depth to their forward options."
Too right. The South American pack is shorn of three France-based forwards - the Stade Français prop Rodrigo Roncero, the Perpignan lock Rimas Alvarez Kairelis and the Montpellier flanker Martin Durand - who scared the pants off the All Blacks in Buenos Aires last June, yet still looks positively lethal. Even the relative newcomers to the unit, the loose-head specialist Marcos Ayerza and the blind-side flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, will fancy their chances of making a splash today, having successfully cut their teeth in the Guinness Premiership with Leicester and Sale respectively.
What is more, the Pumas arrive armed with Felipe Contepomi, an outside-half widely acknowledged to be almost as good as the All Blacks' resident genius, Daniel Carter. England had expected the 29-year-old medical student to play at inside centre, with the dead-eyed marksman Federico Todeschini in the pivot role, but the Pumas have opted for the more attacking option - a move described as "very bold and extremely confident" by the tourists' newly appointed director of rugby, Les Cusworth, the former England stand-off and coach.
"We have to be careful how we focus ourselves," Corry admitted after casting an eye over the Argentinian team sheet. "Everyone acknowledges the strength of the Puma forwards, but if we concentrate solely on achieving parity or better up front, we'll find ourselves exposed out wide. Looking at one area and one only is a mug's game, because this lot can play some football."
Even if Contepomi presses all the right buttons from first to last, it is difficult to imagine the tourists scoring 15 points in five minutes to kill the contest, as the counter-attacking New Zealanders did in the closing stages of the first half six days ago. But Corry is right to be wary, all the same. Argentina may have struggled to manage a try a game over their 11 fixtures with England since 1981, but their most recent form, allied to a sharp upturn in performance on the international seven-a-side circuit, suggests an unprecedented willingness to back themselves out wide.
Prompted by the adventurous Ashton, who flatly refuses to be manacled by something as base as fear of failure, England have also turned a corner in this respect. They created more try-scoring opportunities against the All Blacks last Sunday than they managed in the whole of the knock-out stage of the last World Cup, which, lest we forget, they won.
That tournament took place only three years ago, but the story now seems as old as Stonehenge. Robinson's team badly need to create a little history of their own, starting this afternoon. If they fail, there is no knowing how toxic the fall-out may be.Reuse content