Authors: Rio Sports
England played in black jerseys which matched the colour of their head coach’s mood despite an 11th consecutive victory at Twickenham and their third in five months over Argentina, one of their Pool C opponents in 2019. Eddie Jones, whose expression during a match is usually inscrutable and phlegmatic, visibly lost his temper at one point, clenching his fist and uttering a word that was not synonymous with bravo.
Even allowing for rust more than seven months after England’s squad were last together, the wet conditions and the absence of Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje – two players who made an impact with the Lions in the summer – as well as Billy Vunipola, their engine kept cutting out.
Jones had picked a side equipped for a fast game, fielding Henry Slade at No12 as Farrell watched from the touchline armed with a water bottle and an earpiece, but Argentina defended the gainline strongly and largely succeeded in slowing down possession.
England had only three ball-carriers: Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes. The first two were largely contained by Argentina while Hughes, who roamed more, covered 76 metres in possession, more than any other player on the field. Slade touched the ball only twice in the opening 20 minutes and was peripheral throughout.
England’s two tries came after they put pace on moves and achieved width, but for the most part the opening international match of the month was a weary plod, little more than a box to be ticked.
Argentina were, as is their wont now, armed with ambition, but they again lacked a focal point, a flock without a shepherd, careless in possession and wasteful from the tee. The 14 points they squandered would have been enough to change the result, but for all England’s missteps they were never in danger of not making it 20 victories in 21 matches under Jones.
There were individual successes: Vunipola found time amid his carrying duties to make 20 tackles and showed a lightness of touch more associated with a three-quarter than a prop; Hughes played with an assurance he understandably lacked a year ago in his introduction to Test rugby and is a different No8 to Billy Vunipola, better at off-loading than trampling through tackles; while Sam Underhill at openside wing forward dispirited Argentina in the opening half by tackling efficiently and inducing mistakes.
Underhill went low in the tackle and was so ruthless that when the Argentina flanker Marcos Kremer went to catch the ball at first receiver with Underhill looming in front of him – limbs spread like a praying mantis – he promptly dropped the ball.
The Bath forward completed 19 tackles but it was not until the 65th-minute that he touched the ball: he was part of the move that led to England’s second try, scored by Semesa Rokoduguni, a first-half replacement for the concussed Mike Brown, but his job was to lurk around the fringe of rucks and not let anyone pass.
He allowed his wing-forward partner Chris Robshaw more licence in attack and the Harlequin was a key component in a move that should have led to England’s first try after 10 minutes: he held up the defence in midfield as George Ford looped around him and passed long to Brown who, with Anthony Watson free outside him, took too long to decide what to do and the moment was lost.
The score was then 3-3, Ford’s opening penalty matched by Emiliano Boffelli with Argentina’s one successful kick out of six.
Ford, who had earlier hit a post, restored England’s lead with his second kick before England confected their opening try, two minutes after Argentina had lost their full-back Joaquín Tuculet to the sin-bin in another example of how the review system is leading to muddled thinking rather than clarity.
Tuculet chased his scrum-half Martín Landajo’s precisely weighted cross-kick, jumping in the air to challenge Brown for the ball. The England full-back was too good for him, securing possession with both hands while his opponent could only get fingertips to it, but the referee decided, after a review, that as the Argentinian had had little chance of securing the ball, he deserved a yellow card. Brown had landed on his head and did not need an assessment to rule him out of a return to the field.
The injury led Jones to move Anthony Watson from the wing to full-back, where his international future may lie. The head coach has talked about having a ball-carrying option in midfield, something denied him with Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi both injured, but a carrier at 12 would demand a second playmaker at full-back.
Brown’s virtues do not extend that far but neither is Watson a frustrated fly-half. Jones has time to find the balance between creating and carrying but the laboured performance here at Twickenham will not do against Australia on Saturday, never mind in the World Cup.
They had their moments: Tuculet had barely sat down in the sin-bin when Hughes finished a move he had sustained with a deft off-load by catching Ford’s long pass to the right wing in one hand, juggling it before riding Boffelli’s safety-first challenge. It threatened to lift a drab afternoon but proved no more than a chimera.
Ford’s third penalty made it 14-3 to England at half-time but the second period was a morass of scrum resets, knock-ons and poor decisions. After four kickers had missed penalties for Argentina, England sealed victory when Alex Lozowski, a replacement for Jonathan Joseph in a switch that saw Slade move to 13, escaped Matías Alemanno’s’s challenge on halfway and covered 30 metres: quick ball was for once secured and Slade’s long pass – ruled to be straight rather than forward – gave Rokoduguni a run to the line.
Argentina enjoyed 63% of the possession but made it count only in the dying minutes when Nicolás Sánchez scored a try by way of consolation. The final whistle was greeted largely with silence: the phoney war has 22 months to run before the World Cup.
Brown (Rokoduguni 21); Watson, Joseph (Lozowski 61), Slade, Daly; Ford, B Youngs (Care 61); M Vunipola (Genge 67), Hartley (capt; George 58), Cole (Williams 67), Lawes, Kruis (Launchbury 56), Robshaw, Underhill, Hughes (Simmonds 71).
Tries: Hughes, Rokoduguni. Con: Ford. Pens: Ford 3.
Tuculet; Moyano, Moroni, Iglesias, Boffelli; Hernández (Sánchez 63), Landajo (Bertrand 67); Botta (Noguera 58), Creevy (capt; Montoya 67), Chaparro (Pieretto 58), Alemanno, Lavanini (Senatore 67), Kramer, Matera, Lezana (Macome 56).
Try: Sánchez. Pen: Boffelli.
Sin-bin: Tuculet 21.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Match rating: 4 (out of 10)
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