Stuart Lancaster’s assertion that England want to be the second best team in the world by the end of this season has added further intrigue to what is already an important game against Argentina this weekend. If that is the goal, this is a game they have to not only win, but win well. The Pumas are not the walkovers they once were, but recently they have not looked like the team that finished third at the World Cup in 2007, either. They book-ended this year’s Rugby Championship by shipping 73 points to South Africa and 54 to Australia, two teams England will battle with if they are to make their target a reality. So, as important as a win is this weekend, they need to do it in style, especially after a performance last weekend against Australia that left a lot to be desired.
Selection ahead of this weekend has led to some heated debate, to say the least. Injuries have cruelly ruled out the chance to see Marland Yarde and Christian Wade playing together on the wings – potentially as exciting a duo as you could wish to see. Instead, Chris Ashton gets one final chance to impress – if ever last chance saloon was appropriate, it is in the case of Ashton. He simply has to perform. The presence of Foden on the other wing will help him – the two of them have 21 tries between them in 26 tests played together.
Inside them much pressure falls on Billy Twelvetrees’ shoulders after a torrid afternoon against Australia – this was the autumn he was tipped to consolidate the 12 shirt, and last weekend was the worst possible start. Owen Farrell, despite his try last weekend, still looks ponderous at times and needs to rediscover the confidence he showed in a Lions shirt over the summer.
The pack sees wholesale changes in the front row, with Dan Cole also receiving a proverbial kick up the backside by being replaced by David Wilson. Lancaster insists it is a positive change to reward Wilson’s good form, and while that certainly rings true, Cole has not been at his best recently and perhaps needs a wake-up call. Dylan Hartley and Joe Marler join Wilson to form a beefy front row, while Courtney Lawes gets another chance to call the line-outs from the engine room.
A huge factor in this game could be England’s bench. There are five British and Irish Lions there, all of whom will make an impact in the second half. If England are 5-10 points up after 50 minutes, expect them to pull away in the final half an hour.
Argentina come into this game an unsettled side. Despite captain Leguizamón’s claims otherwise, fault lines appeared in the squad after Santiago Phelan’s departure, and new coach Daniel Hourcade faces a tough task in reuniting them.
Whether it will have an impact on the pitch remains to be seen, but they can’t be much worse than they were last time out, when they received a 54-17 mullering at home to Australia. As is typical, the front five brims with gnarled physicality; Marcos Ayerza and Patricio Albacete are world class on their day, while Maximiliano Bustos is a fine understudy for the injured Figallo. The loss of captain Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe is a huge blow, but a back-row of Cabello, Matera and Leguizamón still oozes quality.
The backs will be marshalled by Nicolás Sanchez who, when he gets it right, can be a classy player. The men outside him certainly have the potential to hurt England, with new Saracens signing Marcelo Bosch a particular danger. Fans of the Tigers will note Amorosino at fullback, his head-bobbing running style a former favourite of the Welford Road faithful. Along with Bath’s Agulla and Racing Métro’s Imhoff, there is plenty of attacking potency in the back three.
All eyes on
England’s ball-carrying bulldozer Billy Vunipola was one player to emerge from last weekend with real credit. He is a monster of a man, even at this level, and consistently makes ground with ball in hand. He scored four tries on the South America tour over the summer, including one in the first test against Argentina. The Pumas will know what is coming, but stopping it is a whole different matter.
Fans of the Rugby Championship will know all about Pablo Matera, the physical young Argentine who plays in the style of his absent captain Fernandez Lobbe. Richard Cockerill, his new coach at the Tigers, has earmarked him as having the potential to one day be one of the best back-row forwards in the world. In the absence of his mentor, Matera’s role will be even more vital and his battle with Robshaw and Wood, players who operate in a similarly versatile style, will be interesting to watch.
Head to head: David Wilson v Marcos Ayerza
This is an intriguing, and quite literal, head to head. The Pumas caused even the much-vaunted Springbok pack trouble in the scrum at times in the Rugby Championship, and a great deal of that is down to Ayerza, who is a mainstay of this Argentinian front five, and was absent when they were hammered 73-13 by the Boks. He will be no stranger to David Wilson, who has faced him at Tigers for Bath many a time. The tighthead prop has been in excellent form this season, and did superbly well against the Argentinians over the summer – Ayerza, however, is on a different level to the second string props playing then. Both are fairly handy around the park, too, but it is in the scrum that the true battle lies. If Ayerza and his front five pals win that, England will not win by the margin they are hoping for.
Both starting line-ups are shorn of a few key personnel, but the difference is that England’s are on their bench. Argentina will expect to at least gain parity up front, which means England’s backs must find greater fluency than last weekend if they are to score the necessary points to gain a margin of victory they are happy with. They will not be able to rely on scrum penalties to give Farrell shots at goal, so the way he gets his back-line moving will be vital. Expect an improved performance from the home side, but nothing revolutionary. Still, it should be enough to get them a comfortable win. England by 10.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images