Preview - England v Argentina
Preview - England v ArgentinaSHARE
Two sides with plenty to prove
The RFU's promotional material for Saturday's encounter at Twickenham features an England jersey suspended from a meat hook. It's an odd motif for a struggling team to flaunt, especially when in full view of a pride of ravenous Pumas.
England are dicing with disaster. They come into this game on the back of a run of six consecutive losses, fresh from having been subjected to their heaviest home defeat of all time.
Another record-breaking performance this Saturday – namely a first reversal to Argentina on English soil – is unthinkable.
A heavy loss could even force Twickenham's top brass to reconsider the verbal promise they made to England coach Andy Robinson concerning ongoing employment.
But might there really be a spare turkey dinner going abegging at the RFU's Christmas bash?
Well, Jason Leonard should dig out his loose-fitting pants – an English defeat on Saturday is a distinct possibility. England mistook Guy Fawkes Night for Christmas Day, and Argentina's canny backline will accept a shower of gifts as readily as the New Zealanders did.
In fact, we'd argue that the Pumas actually represent a greater threat than the seemingly indomitable All Blacks.
Firstly, England were expected to lose to New Zealand. With a win being an optional bonus rather than the be-all and end-all, the locals were free to a have a stab at some risk-free rugby.
But the English public expects a win over Argentina, and that's a demand that could see Martin Corry's men make a beeline for the shell that they almost managed to throw off last weekend.
Secondly, and thankfully for the English, the All Blacks seemed more interested in testing out combinations than they were in notching up a cricket score; Argentina boast an established side and are looking to make history.
But most importantly, New Zealand came to Twickenham to play one team; Argentina see the England game as an opportunity to show two fingers to the whole world.
The Pumas crave acceptance. They believe that the dominantly Anglo-Saxon world of international rugby treats them as second-class citizens, and their accusations are not without grounding.
Argentina found it hard to arrange Test matches with anyone other than France, the other great 'outsider', until the early eighties. England was the first of the Home Unions to award full international honours for games against the Pumas – but that decree came as late as 1981, and begrudgingly at that.
In more recent times, Argentina were left feeling humiliated when their request to join the Tri-Nations ended with a spectacular snub. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa did actually opt to expand the competition, but stopped short of sharing their cake with anyone new.
And so back to Twickenham on Saturday, where a win over the holders of the Rugby World Cup would lend steel to Argentina's latest crusade: a berth in an expanded Six Nations, using Spain as their 'home' venue.
Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures.
But any doubts about Argentina's worth should have been expelled long ago. They have won seven of their past ten encounters with Six Nations opposition (three of those wins coming in Europe), a second-sting Argentina side held the 2005 British & Irish Lions to a draw in Cardiff, the All Blacks came within a whisker of losing in Buenos Aires last June, and France have come off second best on their last four encounters with the South Americans.
Quite how they keep churning out world-class performances defies all reason. Argentina's top players are scattered across Europe and are at the behest of their club bosses. Meanwhile, the Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) lurches from one financial crisis to another.
Money, or lack thereof, is the main issue. While the likes of the All Blacks deploy scouts to reconnoitre enemy territory for elevated and concealed training facilities, the Pumas kicked off their first training session of the tour by cleared away the dog turds from a corner of Hyde Park. That was on Tuesday.
But what the Pumas lack in cash they make with make up for in dedication to the cause. They consider themselves wayfarers for future generations of Argentinian players and are determined to park their nation at the top table of international rugby.
Les Cusworth, Argentina's current director of rugby and former England fly-half, has nothing but admiration for his adopted players and the future of Argentine rugby. But he concedes that an away win over a desperate England side will be a tall order for his disparate troops.
"I am confident we can do well this Saturday but, if you are rational about the match, it is a huge ask for us," he said.
"Andy Robinson may think he has problems regarding the time he has with his squad. Well, we flew in economy class on Tuesday and our coach, Marcelo Loffreda, has had no time at all.
"But these lads are a fantastic group of players. There are no egos. They are not playing for money, they are playing for the honour of their country.
"We hope to compete against England but the odds are stacked against us. We are 15 against 15 but realistically it's like me taking on Tiger Woods.
"We have a lot of highly talented footballers. Felipe Contepomi I would put on the same level as Daniel Carter. There's a lot of experience as well as young bucks like Juan Fernandez Lobbe of Sale and the London Irish centre Gonzalo Tiesi.
"But in England the infrastructure is amazing. I'll be surprised if they play as badly as they did against the All Blacks. They will be very physical and come out strongly against us. They have some fine young talent.
"You can't replace the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Richard Hill and Jonny Wilkinson overnight but they won't be far off come the next World Cup."
England will accentuate the positives of Cusworth's musings, but they need answers sooner than later – the meat hooks are being prepared.
Players to watch:
For England: Andy Robinson made one change to the side that lost to New Zealand, opting to give Perpignan prop Perry Freshwater a run in place of Sale strongman Andy Sheridan. The NZ-born prop lacks the sort of 'mongo' that Sheridan brings to proceedings, but he will have an intimate knowledge of the opposition's front-row – Omar Hasan and Mario Ledesma both ply their trade in the Top 14, as does replacement prop Martin Scelzo.
For Argentina: Argentina coach Marcelo Loffreda has packed six Guinness Premiership players into his side, and their experience of English play will count for a great deal. Argentina once revelled in ten-man rugby, but a talented backline marshalled by perhaps the finest halfback pairing in existence is changing all that. Keep your eyes peeled for Gonzalo Tiesi, the precociously talented London Irish centre who has been known to dismantle the most well-organised of defences.
Head-to-head: Charlie Hodgson (England) v Felipe Contepomi (Argentina): What Hodgson would do for just one ounce of Contepomi's self-belief! In terms of talent, there's not too much between the two pivots, but the Argentinian doctor is the one with the steady hand and the ability to massage the most moribund move back to life – let us not forget he is the man who earns his daily crust telling Brian O'Driscoll where to run and how fast. Hodgson has never been able to boss England as he does the Sale Sharks, and asking him to do it with a novice inside him and a novice outside him is perhaps as cruel as it is foolhardy. One man-of-the-match performance on the Test stage could see this outstanding talent blossom into a world-class performer. Until then, he will continue to look like a muddy-kneed Tim Henman.
Predicton: England will have to dig deep to weather Argentina's storm, but the hosts will have benefited from last week's run-out and should sneak a win. England by 4 points.
totalbet.com prediction: England by 12 points.
2002: England won 26-18 at Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires
2000: England won 19-0 at Twickenham, London
1997: Argentina won 33-13 at FC Oeste, Buenos Aires
1997: England won 46-20 at FC Oeste, Buenos Aires
1996: England won 20-18 at Twickenham, London
1995: England won 24-18 at Kings Park Stadium, Durban (RWC)
1990: England won 51-0 at Twickenham, London
1990: Argentina won 15-13 at Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires
1990: England won 25-12 at Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires
1981: England won 12-6 at FC Oeste, Buenos Aires
1981: Match drawn 19-19 at FC Oeste, Buenos Aires
England: 15 Iain Balshaw (Gloucester), 14 Paul Sackey (London Wasps), 13 Jamie Noon (Newcastle Falcons),12 Anthony Allen (Gloucester), 11 Ben Cohen (Northampton Saints)10 Charlie Hodgson (Sale Sharks), 9 Shaun Perry (Bristol Rugby), 8 Pat Sanderson (Worcester Warriors), 7 Lewis Moody (Leicester Tigers), 6 Martin Corry (Leicester Tigers, captain), 5 Ben Kay (Leicester Tigers), 4 Danny Grewcock (Bath), 3 Julian White (Leicester Tigers), 2 George Chuter (Leicester Tigers), 1 Perry Freshwater (Perpignan).
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears (Bath), 17 Stuart Turner (Sale Sharks), 18 Tom Palmer (London Wasps), 19 Magnus Lund (Sale Sharks), 20 Pete Richards (Gloucester), 21 Toby Flood (Newcastle Falcons), 22 Josh Lewsey (London Wasps).
Argentina: 15 Juan Martin Hernández (Stade Français), 14 Jose Nuñez Piossek (Bayonne), 13 Miguel Avramovic (Worcester Warriors), 12 Gonzalo Tiesi (London Irish), 11 Pablo Gomez Cora (Lomas Athletic), 10 Felipe Contepomi (Leinster), 9 Agustín Pichot (Stade Français, captain), 8 Gonzalo Longo (Clermont), 7 Juan Manuel Leguizamon (London Irish), 6 Juan Fernandez Lobbe (Sale Sharks), 5 Patricio Albacete (Toulouse), 4 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe (Sale Sharks), 3 Omar Hasan (Toulouse), 2 Mario Ledesma (Clermont), 1 Marcos Ayerza (Leicester Tigers)
Replacements: 16 Albert Vernet Basualdo (Associacion Alumni), 17 Martin Scelzo (Clermont), 18 Esteban Lozada (CASI), 19 Martin Schusterman (Leeds), 20 Nicolas Fernandez Miranda (Hindu), 21 Federico Todeschini (Montpellier), 22 Horacio Agulla (Hindu).
Date: Saturday, 11 November
Venue: Twickenham, England
Kick-off: 14:30 GMT
Conditions: Light rain predicted, strong westerly winds – max 14°C, min 9°C
Referee: Kelvin Deaker (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Steve Walsh (New Zealand), Malcolm Changleng (Scotland)
Television match official: Peter Allan (Scotland)
Assessor: Dougie Kerr (Scotland)
By Andy Jackson