Stuart Lancaster's England some way from the finished article

A hallmark of a great international rugby side is the ability to put 80 minutes of quality play together on any given day, first whistle to last. In which case, Stuart Lancaster's England remain a long, hard yomp from the promised land.

England's display in beating Argentina 31-12 was very up and down. Dynamic in the first half, sleep-inducing in the second, those fans streaming towards the Twickenham exits 10 minutes before the end had every reason to feel bewildered by the actions of their side.

It was the converse of last week, when England started slowly and uncertainly in their 20-13 win over against Australia before raising their game and overturning a half-time deficit.

But it proved ultimately more disappointing, because England head into next week's Test against world champions New Zealand back where they started - huddled over the drawing board and wondering how to fix things.

It is the way in modern sport for coaches to trumpet the positives while shielding any negatives from a prying media. Unless you are former Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio.

And backs coach Andy Farrell was correct to point out you will rarely see a Pumas pack so badly mauled as it was before the break.

England's autumn series

  • 2 Nov: England 20-13 Australia
  • 9 Nov: England 31-12 Argentina
  • 16 Nov: England v New Zealand (14:30)

Argentina, without inspirational captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, were second best in the scrum - their traditional strength - and blitzed at the breakdown, with Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes particularly effective.

Indeed, hooker Hartley's bristling display, and solid performances by props David Wilson and Joe Marler at least demonstrated that there is healthy competition for places, none of them having started last week.

The pace and fluidity of England's forwards even spilled over into the backline, which so often in the past has been unable to convert overwhelming possession into points.

Centre Billy Twelvetrees, who came in for plenty of criticism following a poor display against the Wallabies,  carried well and scored a well-taken try, while makeshift wing Ben Foden also looked bright at times on the left wing.

But having raised the spirits of the Twickenham faithful before the break, England started the second half looking for all the world like their spirits had been stolen in the changing rooms. Perhaps the kit man is still looking.

England emerged suddenly laborious and predictable, unable to exert any control in the contact area, reduced to aimless kicking and shovelling the ball along the backline, this way and that, with nobody running penetrating lines.

Without a steaming herd in front of them, England's midfield was almost anonymous, with neither Twelvetrees nor Joel Tomkins possessing the wit to unpick Argentina's defence or the brawn to knock it down.

Chris Ashton scored in the first half but is looking less and less a Test-class wing with every match. The Saracens man butchered another chance, stepping inside when he should have pinned his ears back and gone for the corner - and his work became more and more ragged as the match wore on.

After the match, Lancaster confirmed that Christian Wade, who made his debut against the Pumas in the summer, would have started had the Wasps flyer been fit. But throwing Wade, 22, in against the All Blacks would be a tremendous risk, meaning Ashton might retain his place after all.

Lancaster rarely chews on negatives, at least not in public. And perhaps he is right to, given that England have won nine of their last 10 games and could go second in the world if they beat New Zealand, who they humbled 38-21 a year ago in front of a shocked Twickenham, next weekend.

England fight back to beat Australia

"We're delighted to get a win," said Lancaster. "If you'd had said that would be the scoreline beforehand I'd have taken it. We were playing an experienced side who have been through a Rugby Championship together, pushing Australia and South Africa close, so you know they're going to have their moments."

What Lancaster didn't mention was that on either side of some competitive performances in the Rugby Championship, the Pumas were thrashed 73-13 by the Springboks in Johannesburg and 54-17 by the Wallabies in Rosario.

While Lancaster was presenting his beatific smile to the press, England's World Cup-winning mastermind Sir Clive Woodward was saying elsewhere that he would have been chucking tea cups around the dressing room had he overseen that second-half performance, in the style of an irate Barry Fry.

Crockery vandalism isn't Lancaster's style but you have to hope he was at least stirring his tea more vigorously than usual. Against the All Blacks, one good half is unlikely to be good enough - because they have the unerring ability to produce two.