England claimed yet another southern hemisphere scalp with a 31-12 victory over Argentina but it was a case of two steps forward and one back for Stuart Lancaster’s side.
What were the keys to their victory and will anything have New Zealand worried ahead of their return to Twickenham next weekend?
England simply ran their rivals off their feet with a lung-busting opening 40 minutes. The desire to play at pace was evident from the first whistle and Argentina were not in the game. A ball-hungry England dominated the contest up front against a seemingly weary Pumas pack and their urgency set the tone for the rest of the team with running from deep that punctured the gain line. The likes of scrum-half Lee Dickson, fly-half Owen Farrell and No.12 Billy Twelvetrees capitalised on their forwards’ industry with some crisp distribution. That pace was also evident in defence with the Pumas denied both possession and territory but speed of thought will only get you so far and crucially, for the first half at least, England also offered an equally impressive level of accuracy and fluency that brought tries for Joe Launchbury, Billy Twelvetrees and Chris Ashton.
Players in motion
The world has long admired the ability of the All Blacks’ forwards to masquerade as backs with some dazzling game-breaking skills but they are not the only muscle men with more in their locker than brute force. England would not have been able to play at the tempo they produced in the first half without the confidence that every player could contribute and it is quite clear they are all on the same script. Locks Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes both offered outstanding examples of the superb individual skill that can lift a team to even greater heights. Launchbury’s effort to keep the ball alive in the build-up to the opening try – that he scored – was typical of his ingenuity and industry. With play threatening to break down deep in the Pumas’ half, he flicked the ball up off the ground into the arms of a team-mate with the end result a tone-setting score. Lawes’ determination to keep the ball alive was also evident with his strength and composure allowing him to offload in the tackle at key moments. England skills coach Mike Catt should take a bow for harnessing the talent of these players.
Centre Billy Twelvetrees suffered in the wake of England’s victory over Australia with his defensive shortcomings and inability to spark his side into like with ball in hand attracting widespread concern and criticisim – but he is clearly made of sterner stuff than his handling of Matt Toomua last week would suggest. He did not dwell on his showing against the Wallabies and looked assured and hungry to atone from the opening exchanges. His confidence grew with every touch of the ball as England bristled with intent for the first 40 minutes. His coaches must take a certain amount of credit for ensuring Twelvetrees did not go into his shell but the player himself deserves the greatest praise for weathering the storm. His mental strength, and a dominant pack, laid the foundation for an eye-catching performance in the first half with his vision and distribution stretching the Pumas. The most telling contribution was his try with a bullish Twelvetrees ignoring a huge overlap and backing himself to bust through two tackles for a well-deserved score.
As England lost their way in the second half it was left to their resolute defence to ensure a gutsy Argentina were not allowed back into the contest. The home side failed to rediscover their rhythm and intensity after the break and the resurgent Pumas clawed their way back into the game through the boot Nicolas Sanchez. It could have been worse but for England’s determination to limit Argentina time and space with tireless captain Chris Robshaw and the ever-reliable Tom Wood consistently snuffing out the danger at source and feasting at the breakdown. The back row duo’s pace off the defensive line was crucial and their efforts were bolstered by Dylan Hartley whose performance was rewarded with the Man of the Match. The fired-up hooker took the attack to the Pumas time and time again in the first half and harnessed his aggression in defence when it was demanded in the latter stages.
Executing under pressure
The ability to perform to your best under pressure will always be decisive in a contest between two of the world’s best sides and so it proved for England. The weight of expectation hung heavy on this side after their failure to get out of second gear last weekend but to their credit they delivered with a blistering first half including some of the best rugby they have produced since accounting for the All Blacks last year. England fly-half Owen Farrell was another to shrug off his shaky form the previous week with the kind of kicking display we are more accustomed to from the Sarries playmaker that led to an 11-point haul. Up front, the forwards also rose to the challenge of a Pumas pack that has troubled New Zealand this year and by standing their ground they denied their rivals a foothold in the game when they were desperate for anything. Elements of England’s performance deserve huge credit but their failure to maintain that level of performance in the second half gives them plenty to work on ahead of a clash with an All Blacks side that are the very definition of consistency.