The worst of the rain had blown through Twickenham before kick off but the crowd’s spirits remained thoroughly dampened throughout. Despite the cost of living crisis, the ground was brimming, but there was little to elicit more than a frisson of excitement in the stands in a sloppy, staccato contest, a game of a shared 59 points played out in sepulchral tones. Only Jack van Poortvliet’s sharp sniping score really forced the fans to their feet on a flat afternoon.
It is, by now, becoming a familiar opening act for Jones’s side – a third international campaign of the year starting with a defeat. At Murrayfield in February, in Perth in July and finally on home soil in November, the patterns are well worn, final-quarter ill-discipline and red-zone inaccuracy costing England victory in a game they had chances to win.
“It seemed like when we got behind we had really good energy and when we got in front we played almost within ourselves,” said a beaten Eddie Jones of his team’s showing, referring to a certain “dullness” to proceedings afterwards.
“It’s funny, my concern going into the game was that we were going to try too hard because I just saw a really good attitude within the team.
“Sometimes you get into a game and you just haven’t got the right level of arousal or commitment and for whatever reason we were lacking that today.”
To paint England’s defeat as a grand shock would be dismissive of this emerging Argentinean side. The Pumas, in beating the All Blacks for the first time on New Zealand soil and achieving a record win over Australia, have shown throughout this year that they are developing into a fine unit, particularly defensively, blessed with tremendous physicality in the back five of their pack and led strongly by Julian Montoya.
But the visitors’ head coach, Michael Cheika, had spent half of his week coaching Lebanon at the Rugby League World Cup, and his Pumas did not have to play at anywhere particularly close to their best to turn over England at Twickenham for only the second time. The signs, again, for the hosts are worrying.
Not that Jones appears overly concerned. The head coach has been keen to stress that his side are holding things back; that it will all be right come their World Cup opener against Argentina in Marseille next September when he will be granted the extended pre-tournament access to his players that the Australian craves.
He was not in a quarrelsome mood post-match, conceding that his side had not been good enough and made “elementary mistakes”, suggesting that the solutions will be simple to find. Why, then, do the problems continue to pervade? Why does a squad containing so much experience and so many of those likely to lead England into next year’s tournament continue to be short of discipline in pressure moments?
There were glimpses of life for England’s attack – Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler presenting carrying and passing threats at the line, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga causing damage in wider channels – but Argentina were, generally, able to combat England’s power game when the home side entered their 22. When the openings did appear, the home side appeared to lack the fast-movers to exploit them.
A need for speed should bring Jonny May into contention for a starting place against Japan, though England fear their young supercharger Henry Arundell will now miss the entire autumn after his foot injury. An effervescent Japanese attack could again show up England’s lack of fizz on Saturday, but Jones is sure his side will rebound and produce something to enliven a muted, disengaged crowd.
“What I saw was some silly mistakes which cost us the game, which is bloody disappointing,” Jones said, looking ahead to the second fixture of what he has billed as a mini World Cup with New Zealand and South Africa to come. “It’s a great opportunity for us now, because we’re under the pump a bit. We’re a team who responds really well to pressure, that’s the character of the team.”