It was a sobering reminder of how much ground England have to make up on the leading World Cup contenders, less than 12 months before the tournament begins. A first defeat against Argentina for 13 years, a first at Twickenham since 2006 and a performance with enough mistakes to cause major concern with more formidable tests to come this month. Eddie Jones has insisted that England will keep things going between now and next year’s World Cup, but the old gag about where Napoleon keeps his armies is remembered, so little firepower did England show.
Instead, Argentina hit back with two fine second-half tries through Emiliano Boffelli and Santiago Carreras and managed the shortest of England’s comebacks to clinch victory. Boffelli was superb throughout and finished with 25 points, such was his accuracy off the tee.
It was their ability to get back in front whenever England regained the lead that will please Michael Cheika most – and infuriate his old pal Jones. It’s actually a first win for Cheika over Jones in eight tries, maybe he should spend half the week training rugby league more often.
This defeat was England’s fourth from their last six games, the resilience shown in the other two Tests against Australia is now forgotten and there will be question marks over Owen Farrell’s captaincy, such was his side’s inability to close out the game. In the end, it is the sting that England so often struggled to get out of that worries most.
“Dull,” was Jones’ reflection on a stop-start contest, but not so long ago it was a strength for England that they would win these ugly encounters. There was little direction in attack, apart from some powerful strikes from Joe Cokanasiga, and an underwhelming debut for a midfield combination of Marcus Smith, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi.
Throw in poor discipline and an inability to hang on to a lead they wrestled back, largely thanks to a fine solo try from substitute Jack van Poortvliet, and it could be a long November ahead with New Zealand and South Africa also at Twickenham. Argentina, lest we forget, is England’s first opponent at next year’s World Cup. There is time to put things right, and Jones spoke of individual mistakes rather than structural faults, but suddenly the dark clouds that loomed over this team in March are returning after another dreadful Six Nations campaign.
England have developed a habit of starting campaigns slowly. Jones blames the fact that he chooses from so many different clubs that every time they meet, international habits have to be relearned. Add in the biblical weather in south-west London and Twickenham was hardly buzzing with anticipation in the minutes before kick-off.
In the opening stages, it was time to kick from the deep. On the first four occasions Smith touched the ball, he kicked it. On the fifth, he passed to Farrell, who put his foot through it anyway. When England managed to get ahead, their handling – Billy Vunipola the most obvious culprit – let them down and it was Argentina who took the lead with the first of Boffelli’s six penalties.
Farrell and Boffelli then traded quick penalties, but after the quarter mark England began to show glimpses of an intention to put the ball through their hands. Cokanasiga in particular looked busy and it was he who scored the first try after 25 minutes. Ben Young’s smart kick led to a scrum and from there Cokanasiga took a short ball and thundered over.
It was a 12th try in 13 Test appearances for Cokanasiga, all but two of which have come at Twickenham. He has played so little for Bath in recent years that you wonder why Jones puts up with him at times, but then you see him in this mood and the money drops.
However, England could not break their habit of letting Argentina back in soon after scoring, and a third Boffelli penalty kept the home side’s lead at just one point. A powerful England push on Argentina’s cross gave Farrell the chance to push the lead to four at the break – about as much as they deserved but with little room for comfort.
England were completely out of their comfort zone when Boffelli finished off a low effort in the left corner to retake the lead. It came from a lineout on the right and Matías Moroni’s pull-back pass to Santiago Carreras sent England scrambling before Boffelli showed the pace to finish in the corner.
After Santiago Carrera’s breakaway try with just under half an hour remaining, England had slipped into the danger zone Jones had warned of in advance, eight points down against a tail-up Pumas side.
Van Poortvliet had been on the pitch – making his England home debut – just seconds but he ran towards the line and had the speed to get there. Farrell kicked England back ahead and the home side looked likely winners at that stage but Boffelli responded to turn the heat back on Jones’ side.
Farrell restored England’s lead again before Boffelli had the final say after the home side once again gave up a penalty within his reach. Making a mistake once is forgivable, making it twice gives Jones a lot to ponder.
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