Much has been written about England’s opening salvo with Argentina. Most of it extremely critical, both in their performance and their choice of colour for the national shirt. However, history suggests that the narrow 13-9 victory against Argentina might not be as bad as some commentators suggest.
Indeed, as Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times reflected ‘my impression was that this was one of the most ferocious sporting contests I had ever seen’. What it lacked for in terms of style, flowing rugby and precision kicking, it certainly delivered in terms of sheer physicality of the contest. Nor should Argentina be underestimated as a rugby playing nation. The Pumas achieved an unprecedented 3rd in the 2007 World Cup and are flooded with players who compete in the English and French top flights. In fact, they still have every chance of making a quarter-final berth.
Most critically though, England have been here all before. Whilst New Zealand and Australia were punishing oppositions in their respective groups back in 2007 [New Zealand 74-14 vs. Italy; Australia 91-3 vs. Japan to name a couple of victims]; England stumbled and lumbered their way over the group stage line with a bruising defeat by South Africa and unconvincing wins over USA, Tonga and Samoa. The Australians, led by Mortlock, already had one eye beyond Phil Vickery’s ageing England Team when they met at the quarter final stage. England’s powerful and stubborn pack put pay to those hopes unexpectedly, and Wilkinson did the rest with the boot. New Zealand were also famously knocked out by the mercurial French at the same stage, meaning another four years of hurt for the number 1 side in the world.
Somehow, amidst the wreckage, England managed to grind their way to the 2007 final. Like then, England are nowhere near the best side in the 2011 tournament. In particular, their preparation doesn’t come close to matching the winning squad of 2003. But other sides could learn a thing or two about winning ugly when it really matters. The current England team should take heed from their predecessors. New Zealand might also wish to do the same if they are to break their rugby voodoo on home turf.