Surely the money – the big money, the imaginary money, my money, actually – was on England Argentina being crunchy and one-dimensional rather than Michelin-starred fare. Stodgy, because England will surely have regarded this opening fixture as a serious threat to their tournament. Their victory therefore, in the narrowest sense answers everything. They won.
Martin Johnson would however, probably have delivered a prolonged bollocking to his embarrased players afterwards. Repeatedly giving away cheap early penalties was surely the first sign that English eyes were glazing over but Wilkinson’s poor kicking was perhaps the most striking reflection of the not quite all blacks limitations on the day. I personally expected them to revert to rather depressing Johnsonian type because this England team is both ordinary – but powerful – and manifestly not in the grip of inspired leadership, on or off the pitch. Still they did manage to significantly underperform, again, whilst beating a Pumas side that would have given any of the real contenders in this competition a major test first time out.
( A footnote; I have just this second witnessed the cruel defeat of Wales – again! – by the Springboks in a comparatively luminous match which nevertheless suggested that the Argentinians would, for example, have more than stretched the flawed World Champions and the Welsh).
The Pumas clearly stretched the English to the point where any sympathy amongst the unbiased rugby-watching world for Brian Moore’s compatriots petered out with each slow rotation of the narrow range of possibilities learned, we imagine, by rote by everyone from Armitage to Cole. For a few minutes England looked brutish and purposeful but later they were merely characteristically dour – the epitome of everything rugby purists (epitomised by the Welsh?) detest. Johnson will I think react with fury to the general lack of quality and to specific errors, as well as to failures to execute. Then he will mutter darkly that his undeserving side won… and Gatland’s occasionally inspired boyo’s got beat.
For that, disappointingly for the watching majority, was what happened despite a near-inspired twenty minute period of the second half when it seemed that tries were about to rain for the Welsh. South Africa were reeling; Roberts looked like the Lion of old and Warburton – who’s missed tackle was instrumental in the Springboks 3rd minute score – was becoming the force many are now predicting. It seemed unthinkable that Wales could fail to convert overwhelming possession and territory into a substantial lead. But then following another surge from the rampaging centre the ball was carelessly surrendered and late on Priestland, who had previously shown admirable calm and direction, inexplicably pulled an easy drop wide. Proof yet again that pressure and expectation and the moment separate the winners from the worthy.
Wales’ tournament may now be agonisingly ‘poised’ rather than having taken flight after a famous win. To deservedly beat the Springboks would have been a huge lift from which all-singing and dancing Welsh backs might have threatened even the few world powers of the game. Surely Gatland’s players knew this. Interesting perhaps that few have used the word ‘choke’ to describe Welsh inability to convert opportunity into win(s) – perhaps this is a legacy of the goodwill towards the nation that represents and supports the spirit of rugby playing better and more genuinely than almost any other. Those neutrals will be hoping for Hook and Williams S to respond with flair and imagination to what was undeniably a devastating defeat; whether this will carry them through against the bullocking Fijians and Samoans may be another matter. Some Welsh fans fear it may not.
So again we might feel we can bless the Welsh for their colour whilst condemning the grey English. But look at the scoreboard. Young’s moment of sharpness in a dull matrix of English meanness means almost everything.