Ben Youngs spared England’s blushes as they came from six points behind to beat Argentina 13-9 in their opening World Cup Pool B match at the Otago Stadium here on Saturday.
England were trailing 9-3 when, after wing Chris Ashton was illegally upended, they kicked a penalty to touch.
They won possession from the resulting lineout and replacement scrum-half Youngs, recently sidelined with a knee injury, went over for the only try of the match 13 minutes from time.
Jonny Wilkinson, who remarkably missed five of his eight goalkicks as he began his and England’ quest to appear in a third successive World Cup final in uncertain fashion, added the conversion to make it 10-9 before landing a late penalty to extend his side’s lead.
But there was still time for a last-gasp Pumas attack from their own line launched by replacement back Marcelo Bosch.
A brilliant handling move ended with replacement Juan Jose Imhoff kicking ahead only to be seemingly tackled late by Manu Tuilagi.
But referee Bryce Lawrence did not award a penalty and England hung on.
“I aged about 20 years,” said England manager Martin Johnson. “We had to find a way to win and we did.
“It’s not a fantastic performance by any means, but it’s a fantastic win,” added England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain.
“I always thought if we kept on going, we’d tire them out.”
Argentina, third at the 2007 World Cup where England finished runners-up to South Africa, were made to pay for missing six out of nine penalties, a possible 18 points in total.
The Pumas, their forwards especially, performed brilliantly for a side that had played just one Test in 11 months — a 28-13 defeat by Wales in Cardiff in August and England captain Mike Tindall said: “We are under no illusions about what Argentina can bring.
“You’ve got to give full credit to the Pumas, when they got the ball they controlled it,” added the 2003 World Cup-winning centre, leading the team in the absence of injured skipper Lewis Moody.
“Youngsy came on and changed the tempo and we got a bit more control of the game. Luckily, their kickers couldn’t kick today.”
Argentina led 6-3 at half-time and that advantage would have been greater had not captain Felipe Contepomi and full-back Martin Rodriguez, who had to take over kicking duties when the fly-half suffered a blow to his ribs early on that forced him off midway through the first period, been repeatedly off-target.
The Pumas nearly had a fourth minute try.
After Contepomi’s kick took Argentina deep into England territory, blindside flanker Juan Farias Cabello tried to dive over from a ruck off a lineout but was repelled inches short.
However, Contepomi made it 3-0 from a penalty minutes later.
England, who repeatedly fell foul of New Zealand referee Lawrence at the breakdown, won a penalty for a high tackle by Argentina prop Rodrigo Roncero on full-back Ben Foden.
Wilkinson, England’s record points scorer and 2003 World Cup winning hero, levelled the scores.
England, after Wilkinson missed a seemingly easy penalty, saw prop Dan Cole yellow-carded for playing the ball on the floor, only for Rodriguez to miss again.
Argentina ended the half the stronger with veteran hooker Mario Ledesma bundled into touch just short of the line.
The Pumas were out of the blocks the quicker at the start of the second period and England conceded a penalty which Rodriguez kicked to make it 9-3.
Argentina continue their World Cup campaign against Romania, who so nearly upset the odds before losing to Scotland 34-24 earlier on Saturday, in Invercargill a week on Saturday while England’s next match is on Sunday week against Georgia in Dunedin.