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Purple England left with red faces

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Tom Fordyce | 19:58 UK time, Saturday, 14 November 2009

England's purple new kit, we were told before the Argentina match, was the most advanced rugby kit ever - 27% lighter than the last one, specially designed to make them harder to tackle and fleeter of foot.

If that's really true, we can only be grateful they weren't wearing the old one. Saturday wasn't so much the start of a new purple patch for English rugby as a mauve mess. While other teams develop and improve, England appear to be a side marooned.

"A win's a win," goes the old sporting adage, but the 75,000 people at Twickenham who witnessed the 16-9 squeak past a spirited Argentine side might feel like disagreeing. This was a performance so dispiriting that some England fans didn't know whether to boo or sob.

The first 40 minutes may just have been the poorest half of rugby England have ever been involved in. That they improved in the second half was a relief, but how could they not?

First, the positives. Lewis Moody had his second stormer in eight days. James Haskell and Mark Cueto justified their places. England scored a try, and just about hung on for a desperately-needed victory. Beyond that? There is no beyond that.

Error followed error. Aimless kick followed aimless kick. At half-time the scoreboard said 9-9, but you could have been forgiven for thinking it read 999 instead.

So fed up were the home supporters that many decided to make their own entertainment by firing paper darts at the pitch. The biggest cheer during the first 50 minutes came when one sailed all the way into the Argentine 22, in the process going several metres further than any England attack had.

Martin JohnsonMartin Johnson can barely bring himself to watch at Twickenham

That England came away with the victory does no more than paper over the gaping cracks. If there's a vision behind this team it's a blurred one. If there's a masterplan it's brilliantly disguised.

Some of the problems are selectorial. Ugo Monye is not an international full-back, and his calamitous catalogue of knock-ons and shaky spills of high balls should have seen Argentina ahead at the break.

Others are tactical. Possession was kicked away, generally straight down the throats of the eager Argentine backs. The three-quarters went sideways, running without angle or guile, and there was an almost complete absence of imagination or off-the-cuff creativity.

"We analysed how England were going to play," said Argentina's impressive skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe afterwards, "and they didn't surprise us."

Jonny Wilkinson, his side's best player against Australia last week, was uncharacteristically off-key. More worryingly, his nascent partnership with Shane Geraghty showed no sign of bearing the fruits their combined talents suggest.

All around, there were basic mistakes. Monye dropped three punts in a row, Wilkinson put a drop-out straight into touch and then failed to find the line with a penalty from hand. When England found space and an overlap out on the right, Dan Hipkiss's pass flew into thin air with Monye dawdling 10 metres off the pace. Cueto even dropped a water-bottle lobbed to him by Jon Callard.

Excuses? Conditions weren't great, but neither were they disastrous. The rain held off for the full 80 minutes; the wind that battered the outside of the stadium generally failed to penetrate the enclosed bowl within.

Martin Johnson is not a man to take a pummelling without throwing a few swingers back himself. Normally in his post-match press conferences he's combative and unyielding, but on Saturday evening even this old fighter had the look of a man on the ropes.

"It was pretty difficult to watch at times," he admitted. "Ultimately, it's about winning the game, which we did, but it wasn't great. I can't come off after a performance like that and pretend it was good, because it wasn't."

At half-time a fair proportion of the Twickenham crowd booed their team off the pitch. For a man who as a player led his country to Grand Slam and World Cup triumphs, it must have been a wretched sound to hear.

"We probably deserved it," he said glumly. "They had every right not to be happy."

When asked where England had gone wrong, Johnson shrugged with resignation and ran through a list that threatened to be as endless as that awful first half.

"There were times when we could have kept the ball in play and we didn't." "We had virtually no territory." "When we kicked the chase wasn't good enough - that put the pressure right back on us, and we didn't handle that very well. "

There was more. "They squeezed us at the scrummage at times - if they'd been kicking on target it could have been very different." "At times we kicked it too long." "I think the team got a bit nervous. As the match goes on and on and it's level on the scoreboard it gets more and more tense, and frustration can really kill you if you let it."

And so it went on. You couldn't disagree with any of it. "We got done on the blind-side too many times in the first half." "Errors really, really hurt us. You saw what happened. They happen in games, but we made far too many." "We didn't help ourselves by being turned over so often."

This, let's remember, was against an Argentina side that hasn't played together for five months, a side featuring four amateur players and a three-quarter line stripped of its brightest and most experienced talents.

Of course England have had injury problems too, but they also have financial and playing resources that the Argentines can only dream of. It's no coincidence that England did what little damage they did after an hour's rugby had been played, when their superior fitness and depth of their bench began to tell.

England, less we forget, have been in camp for three weeks. They were playing at home. Argentina have been together for less than a week. For almost a third of their side, this was their first taste of Test rugby, let alone playing in front of 75,000 people at one of the game's most famous grounds.

Lobbe refused to make any of the obvious excuses afterwards. "I cannot say what would happen if we had a game before or three weeks together," he said smiling, "because I am not a wizard."

At the same time, the fact that he was so disappointed not to walk away with a draw or win spoke volumes for how the rest of the rugby world now views England.

"We could have won at Twickenham," he said flatly. "We're frustrated that by making one mistake we lost this game. We said in the dressing-room afterwards - this is our level now."

Even after Matt Banahan's try looked to have made the game safe, there was still time for England to almost throw it away. With Argentina out on their feet England returned to the purposeless kicking game of the first half and invited their plucky opponents to attack them one final time.

For three minutes the Pumas were camped five metres from the try-line, one bludgeoning drive or slipped tackle away from a try and possible parity. Had they broken through, those purple shirts would have been underneath some very red faces.

"In the end we were fighting for about three inches of Twickenham," said Johnson, gloomily. "We could have lost the match."

Those inches might have been held, but England have barely advanced more than a couple of yards under Johnson's command. They remain stranded in no-man's land, open to attack from the big guns, as far from the big breakthrough as they were 12 months ago.

Meanwhile, the All Blacks are racing into view. It is not a good place to be.

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