England 16-9 Argentina, Twickenham, November 14
Victory cannot hide England's shortcomings
Graham Jenkins
November 14, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson is unimpressed by his side, England v Argentina, Twickenham, England, November 14, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson will have seen little to make him smile during his side's latest disappointing showing © Getty Images

The torrential rain that had plagued London in the hours before the game may have eased by kick off but the storm clouds had returned by the time the final whistle brought a welcome end to one of the most insipid England displays to have graced their Twickenham HQ.

The relief was palpable as England somehow conjured a victory over the Pumas but this result cannot hide the hosts' plentiful shortcomings. No creativity, no direction, no ambition and an alarming lack of intensity. Martin Johnson's side are in freefall - unable to halt their slide into mediocrity and seemingly unable to muster the fight to lift themselves out of the mire.

With this far from impressive win England may have prevented another dreaded hat-trick of autumn defeats - such is the certainty of a painful rugby lesson at the hands of the All Blacks next weekend - but that is the only bright spot on the horizon and right now that is looking pretty dim.

This was a must-win game for Johnson and his charges and although the scoreboard says they achieved that aim the performance warrants the kind of post-mortem normally reserved for the most crushing of defeats.

The England management did their best to talk down the pressure facing the side but it did little to mask the reality. The home side were paralysed by nerves and as a result took a big step backwards from last weekend's performance against Australia. Gone was the stable forward platform and the discipline that had at least made the Wallabies work and the rare glimpses of creativity were all but non-existent amidst the wind and rain against the Pumas.

Instead we were treated to a litany of errors - with the likes of fullback Ugo Monye and prop Tim Payne hogging the camera for all the wrong reasons - and a group of experienced professionals failing to justify their status, lacking composure and all too willing to kick the ball away. Man of the Match Lewis Moody looked a little embarrassed when accepting his award but he has no reason to feel so. His commitment to the cause is admirable as his hunger to not only play but excel. In fly-half Jonny Wilkinson they have another gem but few need reminding of that fact. He may have had an off-day with the boot with his kicking from hand also a worry, but without him England would be staring into the abyss.

England appear to lack leadership - not just someone to front up to the media or toss a coin but a man who can think on his feet and shake his side out of the kind of chronic stupor that has descended upon this team. England have experience and talent at their disposal but it takes a special kind of player to combine those assets with the inspirational qualities of a leader of men. If only Johnson had someone akin to his old playing self at his disposal.

The Pumas deserve immense credit and in no way should that be seen as patronising. They have long since cemented their place at the elite end of the game and they came here expecting to win. Shorn of the skills of irresistible playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez amongst others, the South Americans fielded a side featuring three debutants and four amateurs (with two more amongst their replacements) but instead it was England who looked out of their depth.

Let us also not forget that this Pumas side have not played for five months - since their well-deserved victory over England in Salta - and have been together for barely a week. By comparison England have been together for weeks, had a clash with the Wallabies to get up to speed and the power and influence of the richest union behind them making sure every want and need is catered for.

In the end one defensive lapse cost the largely-inexperienced Pumas side this fixture but their young side will learn more from this encounter than England's combined talents. And had Argentina been able to field a more accomplished kicker we would be compiling Johnson's professional obituary at this moment. Victory has bought him and his coaching team a stay of execution but the 'dead man walking' quips will gather momentum should his side fail to find the fight to at least draw the best out of the All Blacks.

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