Victory no consolation for England; RUGBY UNION

Puma amateurs embarrass their new-age hosts; England 20 Argentina 18; Leonard Try Catt 5 Penalties Quesada 6 HT: 9-9
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The Independent Online
The free market is one thing, daylight robbery quite another. England's rugby players earned more money in 10 minutes at Twickenham on Saturday than the staunch amateurs of Argentina pocketed during their entire month-long visit - the tourists were given pounds 250 a week in living expenses, half a dozen commemorative ties and all the free beer they could drink - yet events on the pitch would have left the combined intellects of the London School of Economics struggling to explain the discrepancy.

For all the fogeyishness of stick-in-the-mud administrators who would uninvent the wheel given half a chance, Lisandro Arbizu and his peso-less Pumas have made enormous strides since losing to Rob Andrew's right boot at last year's World Cup. Not only have they found a new front row to replace that one that jumped ship on a tidal wave of dollar bills and krugerrand 18 months ago, but they have pieced together an exceptionally gifted and imaginative back division into the bargain. What about their handsomely salaried hosts, though? How have England progressed since embracing mammon? Um, good question.

Jason Leonard and his nouveaux riches may be raking in the best part of pounds 70,000 for this season's international activity, but a bumper bank balance is no bulwark against rank incompetence. In some areas of the team - and Jack Rowell, the coach, knows precisely which ones even if he is too diplomatic to identify them in public - the wage bill appears to have mushroomed in inverse proportion to the degree of expertise on offer. Truly, professionalism moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.

While England sneaked victory on the back of Leonard's mauling try six minutes from time, their display was comfortably their worst since being overrun by Ireland in Dublin in 1993. They encountered so many unexpected problems in so many different areas of the field against the Pumas that Rowell admitted afterwards that almost three months' work had been wrecked in the space of 80 embarrassing minutes.

"We have problems to address," he agreed. "There are weaknesses, yes; we have tried very hard to sort things out over the last few weeks but a number of issues remain unresolved." That was putting it mildly.

Rowell need not concern himself with either his front five, who slugged it out resolutely enough to share the spoils of possession with a typically powerful Puma unit inspired by the outstanding Pedro Sporleder, or his wide backs. He has a clutch of decent wings at his disposal, a world-class outside-centre in Jeremy Guscott and another useful full-back in Nick Beal, whose intelligent running on his debut confirmed him as a natural understudy to Tim Stimpson.

Where the coach needs to go to work is just about everywhere else. As far as the positions from blind-side flanker to inside centre, inclusive, are concerned, all bets are off.

For the second time in a fortnight, the England back-row struggled to live with their opponents. If their discomfort was understandable in the company of New Zealand's Michael Jones and Andrew Blowers, it was less easy to forgive against Pablo Bouza, Pablo Camerlinckx and Rolando Martin. As in Durban last year, Martin was easily the most productive loose forward on the pitch.

But the real horror story was in the key decision-making positions behind the pack. The Argentinians were highly capable both at half-back, where Nicolas Fernandez Miranda and Gonzalo Quesada struck up a potent understanding, and further out in the shape of the striking Buenos Aires centre Eduardo Simone.

Had the Pumas taken either of their skilfully created scoring chances in the first half or Quesada not lost his nerve as a drop goal beckoned near the end, they would have been flying back to South America today without the aid of an aeroplane.

In short, they were superior in every influential position. When Arbizu rightly claimed that the Puma backs had performed better, man for man, than their opponents, the poverty of the English effort was laid bare. Argentina have always possessed muscle and know-how up front - the Pope will sign on as a Methodist before a Puma pack forgets how to scrummage - but whoever heard of them out-twinkling serious opponents in the Fancy Dan department?

Not even Rowell, notoriously touchy in the face of criticism, could find it within himself to man the barricades on behalf of his players. He allowed himself one pop at his after-match interrogators - "Is it my imagination or did we win the game?" - but it was half-hearted in the extreme. The coach now knows that changes at loose forward, half-back and the wider midfield are inevitable.

And the Argentinians? The disgruntled hordes will not have appreciated the fact one little bit, but Saturday's proceedings were of inestimable benefit to world rugby. The game, always prone to contemplating its own navel, needs second division nations like the Pumas, Western Samoa and Italy to compete against the traditional powers with a genuine chance of victory if it is not to become a crashing bore.

"Rugby in Argentina is changing for the better because we are becoming professional in the way we think," Arbizu said. "We propose to be fully professional, but it is important to have the right structures in place. This performance was a big step along the road. We showed we could come to Twickenham and earn respect."

Arbizu and his men earned more than that, even if their pockets remained uncontaminated by filthy lucre. If Argentina get the transition right off the field, as well as on it, and succeed in regathering their best players from the four points of the compass - remember, there was no Mendez, Noriega, Corral or Pichot on Saturday - they may yet help tighten the southern hemisphere's stranglehold on the sport. Never mind, England. There is always Peru.

ENGLAND: N Beal (Northampton); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), J Guscott (Bath), T Underwood (Newcastle); M Catt (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins, capt), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), T Rodber (Northampton), C Sheasby (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacement: B Clarke (Richmond) for Sheasby, 56.

ARGENTINA: E Jurado (Rosario); G Camardon (Asociacion Alumni), E Simone (Leceo Naval), L Arbizu (Belgrano, capt), D Albanese (San Isidro); G Quesada (Hindu), F Miranda (Hindu); R Grau (Liceo), C Promanzio (Duendes), M Reggiardo (Castres), P Sporleder (Curupayei), G Llanes (La Plata), R Martin (San Isidro), P Bouza (Duendes), P Camerlinckx (Regatas Bella Vista).

Referee: T Henning (SA).