A new 'House of Pain'
Graham Jenkins at Otago Stadium
September 10, 2011
England's Ben Foden is tackled by Argentina's Gonzalo Camacho during a bruising encounter at the 'Greenhouse of Pain' © Getty Images
England's Rugby World Cup hopes are alive and well but only just after a game that is destined to be remembered as 'the battle of Dunedin'.
A brutal yet engaging contest, the game may have swung on the shortcomings of individuals but that cannot take away from the unquestionable commitment of two sides desperate to launch their respective campaigns with a priceless victory. This was always going to be a special game. The World Cup stage, a fantastic new stadium, two highly-tuned sides, the recent history between them and a capacity 30,000 crowd determined to make their presence felt - and they did.
Errors were prevalent but pressure will do that to even the best sides although penalties are not so easily forgiven with both sides guilty despite England's painful monopoly in the early part of the contest.
The Pumas took the game to an England pack widely regarded as a formidable unit and had them worried with a deadly mix of power and precision. Suddenly a reputation forged on the back of a series of impressive performances in recent months was looking a little fragile. Combined with an unprecedented and almost unbelievable malfunction from another of England's key weapons - the boot of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson - the outlook suddenly looked very bleak.
Has the veteran playmaker ever missed five penalties in a game? Our own historian John Griffiths, cites three misses against Argentina back in 2009 as perhaps his worst performance on the international stage. There was no complaint about the conditions in the greenhouse-like Forsyth-Barr Stadium, stripped of its moniker due to World Cup regulations, although Wilkinson did inform his captain Mike Tindall that he was struggling to control the ball. Either way, England's World Cup rivals will welcome the latest evidence that the more often than not metronomic Wilko is mortal.
But England's woes began before their No.10 started mis-firing with referee Bryce Lawrence's whistle and his warnings ringing loud and clear above the crackling atmosphere. And when prop Dan Cole trudged off to the sin bin you feared a return to dark 'yellow fever' days earlier in Johnson's tenure.
But they managed to arrest their slide and weather the Pumas' barrage - thanks largely to their rivals' shocking inability to make their dominance pay. England were recently criticised for not taking shots at goal when offered the opportunity but this game is a clear example that such a course of action does not come with any guarantees. Admittedly the majority of fullback Martin Rodriguez' misses were from long range, fly-half Felipe Contepomi was also off-target with one effort, but those misses cost them the game.
The Pumas' superb pack laid the most stable of platforms on which to build a match-winning performance but they simply failed to capitalise and it cost them. And as much as coach Santiago Phelan and captain Contepomi attempted to play the 'win and lose as a team' card, Rodriguez must shoulder much of the blame. He would not have been allowed to attempt so many kicks from distance without a proven track record at such feats which means he simply did not perform to those standards. England's own inadequacies ensured they were still in control at the break and rare success from Rodriguez after the break offered more hope to their fans who made this place fell more like Buenos Aires - if just for one night.
But somehow England steadied the ship and cranked through the gears. "It was a matter of finding a way to win," reflected Johnson after the game. Three months of honing the most pampered bodies in international rugby started to pay dividends with two hit men - flanker James Haskell and lock Courtney Lawes - upping the ante in particular to bring a premature end to Contepomi's game and that of centre Gonzalo Tiesi.
Those kinds of tackle - totally legal - can often be game-changers and so they proved on this occasion. They formed part of a peppering of the Pumas' defence that when allied with fleet-feet of replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs propelled England to victory. That final turnaround, and the first time England had led in the contest, came a little over ten minutes from the end of the game and robbed the Pumas' of the initiative and ultimately the game.
It was also a painful end for the Pumas' and their vociferous fans who are worthy of a word of praise for putting the din in Dunedin on this particular night. They were credit to their country's sporting traditions - except perhaps the one fan sanctioned for parading in front of Johnson's booth high in the stand before offering his middle finger. Needless to say he was notably absent come the final whistle.
That may have been a minor spat but this game, aside from England hooker Steve Thompson's decision to kiss his opposite number Mario Ledesma, was a war. Such conflicts are not pretty and do not always go as planned and inevitably lead to pain.
That came in the form of the agony of the Pumas' fans and more directly the physical and mental scars inflicted on their team. The original 'House of Pain' in the city, the sadly crumbling Carisbrook, may be all out of torment but this new 'Greenhouse of Pain' has a bright future - for some at least.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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