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September 2011

England's opening night nerves
14th September 2011

James Haskell was not the only one screaming with frustration as the final whistle blew on England's opening World Cup match on Saturday. The England flanker momentarily feared that he wouldn't be able to see clearly. England fans already wished we couldn't. While he later claimed that he was over-exuberant, we were at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. While he admitted to being mistaken, we could only wish that we were as well.

The victory over Argentina was so laboured, so lacking in wit, imagination and invention that it was next to impossible to take refuge in the cliches that were inevitably trotted out in the post-match interviews. Of course, a win is a win. Of course, the World Cup is a marathon not a sprint. Of course, it is better to win ugly than not to win at all. Of course, you can only play what's in front of you. Of course, Test rugby is tough and of course, you've got to give credit to the Argentinians.

But, now we've got the cliches out of the way, let's also eliminate the excuses. There was nothing wrong with the conditions. While Ireland and Wales had to put up with the squally conditions for which New Zealand springs are notorious, England were playing under a roof - just as they do most times they go to Cardiff in the Six Nations - and can have no complaints either about the surface or the atmosphere. England may have been without their captain Lewis Moody - but there again they'd spent the whole Six Nations campaign without the Bath flanker, and still won the tournament.

Any claims that the margin of victory would have been much larger if Jonny Wilkinson hadn't had a rare off day with his kicking can be discounted by the knowledge that Argentina's penalty-takers were even more erratic. If they had been on song England wouldn't have won at all. The theory that England couldn't play the way they wanted because the referee, Bryce Lawrence of New Zealand, comes from the southern hemisphere also deserves short shrift. In fact, while England began the match in a flurry of transgressions, Argentina actually conceded more penalties throughout the game, and England's relatively infringement free finish suggested that they knew how to adapt to the referee. And, given that this was the opening match of the World Cup, and that they would have known the identity of the referee for some time in advance, it's impossible to argue that they didn't know what to expect. By the same token, the Argentines are a known force in world rugby. They had secured third place at the previous global tournament with a no-nonsense game based around a competitive and abrasive pack of forwards, many of whom were lining up in Dunedin four years later. England's analysts would have been completely confident in their ability to predict the Pumas' approach.

Some of the more fanciful explanations for the paucity of England's play can also be put to bed. The black shirts had nothing to do with it. New Zealanders in search of a few moments in the media spotlight might have staged indignation about England's appropriation of a colour inextricably linked to the host nation, but Bryce Lawrence was not one of them. Claims that the combination of Kiwi anglophobia and the presence in Dunedin of several thousand Argentina fans made for an especially hostile atmosphere should also be discounted. England have always been the team others love to hate. They should be used to it by now.

Which leaves us with very few crumbs of comfort. The replacements did well - with Ben Youngs coming on to clinch victory with his try - Argentina, as their world ranking shows, aren't a bad side and they could well do some damage to Scotland, England's opponents in the final must-win pool match in three weeks. Matches against Georgia and Romania, the weakest teams in the pool, will set England up nicely for that clash with the Auld Enemy. England reached the last World Cup final even though they disappointed in their first game against the United States, and were thrashed 36-0 in a pool fixture against South Africa. To reach the final against the same opponents, England had to beat both Australia and France. Those are likely opponents in this year's knockout stages.

Before Saturday's match, those looked like favourable omens. After it, they look like straws to clutch at.