Dunedin, New Zealand: England survived a ferocious Argentina performance and a ragged one of their own to open their Rugby World Cup campaign with a 13-9 win yesterday.
Scrum-half Ben Youngs came on as second-half replacement and offered the spark that England had missed, finding a rare gap in the defence and darting over for the only try of the Pool B encounter.
Argentina should have been out of reach after England conceded a string of penalties at the breakdown but five missed kicks by Martin Rodriguez and one by Felipe Contepomi kept the Six Nations champions in touch despite a miserable performance with the boot by Jonny Wilkinson.
"It's blindingly obvious that we could easily have lost that game," England team manager Martin Johnson said. "Do I think we're a fair winner? We're the winner. We scored more points and that's how we decide it."
Wilkinson converted the try to put England in front at 10-9 for the first time after 66 minutes and then landed a penalty to complete the scoring in the 74th, but the usually reliable fly-half missed five kicks under the glass roof of Dunedin's Otago Stadium.
"I don't even know how many I missed," Wilkinson said. "I'm not going to apportion any kind of blame other than to myself. I'm the one kicking the ball."
But Wilkinson wasn't alone. Between them, the teams succeeded with just six of 17 place kicks in the unique sealed environment.
"He said he just couldn't get the control on the ball," England captain Mike Tindall said. "He said he was hitting it well, but couldn't control it."
Until Youngs' intervention, Argentina seemed set to open the World Cup with a shock win for a second straight tournament. Four years after beating host France in an opening night upset, Argentina dominated the setpiece and breakdown against England with No 8 Juan Martin Lobbe earning the man-of-the-match award.
Aside from one 40-metre break by full-back Ben Foden midway through the first half, England showed little enterprise. Lobbe and Julio Cabello not only prevented the English from making ground but continually drove them back when they took the ball into contact.
England openside flanker James Haskell seemed to suggest to the referee that the physicality had spilled over into gouging, but said after the match that the Pumas had just about kept things legal.
"At the last breakdown, I got a bit het up," said Haskell, sporting a huge purple bruise under his left eye. "I got cleared out. I had hands in my face and I think it was just a bit of over-exuberance in the end. In the heat of the moment you react as you do."
Argentina could have been 18-6 ahead at the break had Contepomi and Rodriguez landed all their kicks rather than landing just one each.
"We said before we came, that's what World Cups are about," Johnson said. "You'll be in a game where it's not going your way, probably getting a few penalties against you, the bounce of the ball seems to be not favouring you and you've got to find a way to win. And we did."
Having spent much of the build up to the match highlighting their improved discipline, England failed to heed referee Bryce Lawrence's early warning for conceding three penalties in the first four minutes. Lawrence eventually sent prop Dan Cole to the sin bin in the 34th minute, giving Argentina a one-man advantage.
Argentina started the second half ferociously against England's 14 men but two try-scoring opportunities following breaks by Rodriguez and replacement fly-half Marcelo Bosch yielded only a penalty by Rodriguez for 9-3 by the time Cole returned.
At least England got their man back. Argentina's Contepomi and Gonzalo Tiesi were both carried from the field in the first half with serious looking injuries.
"I won't know for sure what the injury is until I go to the hospital for an X-ray," Contepomi said. "It could be a cartilage, it could be a rib."