After months of toil and trouble, it took a Marseille cauldron for England to find their magic brew. It may not prove the elixir of Rugby World Cup life but on a night that threatened disaster after Tom Curry’s third-minute sending off at a bubbling Stade Velodrome, England came to the boil.
The win was an odd concoction, a convincing final margin even with Argentina scoring the encounter’s only try two minutes from time. It was a night for leaders, and England’s stood up. Courtney Lawes led the defensive effort, Manu Tuilagi and Maro Itoje were back to their best. But it was George Ford, playing the pragmatist, who took control to kick England to a faith-restoring victory.
Ford’s 27 points came from nine strikes of his right boot, three drop goals, six from the tee. English fly halves tend to enjoy the World Cup stage, and Ford’s performance here was a display of command, correctness and clarity. Not all ills are cured, clearly, but how England needed this sort of showing, their fire finally burning in the south of France heat.
It was the sort of atmosphere to lift a dishevelled contest, two flawed sides fumbling in the night. Marseille had been abuzz all weekend, fans packing into the retro metro to make their way out to a Velodrome, still thronged in their thousands outside the gates as the anthems played.
The Argentina fans who had made it inside were jumping as Santiago Carreras kicked off, but soon were baying for blood. Juan Cruz Mallia’s meteor fall ended with a collision between cheek and chin – Curry’s challenge was clumsy, rather than calculated, but upgraded to red on review.
It was a nightmare start for England, and hardly a surprise to see them in trouble with referee Mathieu Raynal. It was a horror return for Curry, head strapped like a latter-day Terry Butcher as his fate was confirmed. The flanker had been hailed as the missing cog in Steve Borthwick’s pack this week, but after three minutes of ticking, his evening was at an end. His involvement against Japan next weekend rests on England’s secret weapon – Richard Smith KC.
The blood seemed to drain out of England’s faces as Curry trekked down the tunnel, and further still when a leaping Santiago Carreras’s collision with Ford remained a yellow on review.
But, after the two sides traded penalties after the early madness, England found a method. Argentina had enjoyed the better of much of the first 25 minutes but could not get out of their own way, a clacking of heels on an out-of-time tap routine squandering one opportunity before Mateo Carreras hoicked out on the full.
That gave England field position, and Ford his first opportunity. There were howls of frustration as the fly half dropped deep into the pocket; by the third successful drop goal in 15 first-half minutes, the travelling fans had learned England’s slot machine was paying out.
This was the sort of on-the-fly thinking that England have lacked for so much of the last few years, casting aside any whims of extravagance to give his accident-prone attack few opportunities. With a busy Ben Earl, Courtney Lawes and Jamie George leading the defensive charge, and Manu Tuilagi’s bulk handy as an emergency option on the flank, England’s 14 men seldom looked stressed.
Ford knocked through three more from the tee just after the resumption, the lead now into double figures. Twice more the fly half struck clean and true soon after as England continued to accumulate.
By now, the Pumas were scratching and clawing, pointless for nearly an hour and desperately short of direction. Michael Cheika had loaded up his bench with six forwards, thinking their introduction might tilt a close contest. By the time they joined, this was anything but – England engulfed another aimless carrier and Ford took his tally to 24.
Argentina at last crossed the line 13 minutes from time, but three of England’s 14 were beneath the ball. Tuilagi was rediscovered as a defensive force. Lawes left, but Earl and George continued, wrecking Argentine possession around the fringes, with Itoje influential, too.
South American fans poured out, frustrated by their side’s lack of progress. There was time left for Ford to take his tally to 27 before Rodrigo Bruni crashed over. “We’ve been written off too soon”, Steve Borthwick’s side had cried all week – at last, reason to believe them.