Well hell’s bells, behold Borthersball and tremble! It’s a game of caterpillar rucks, scrums, and up-and-unders in which clean breaks are for noses and overlaps are best left for fence panelling. This was, apparently, the same sport France and New Zealand were playing at the Stade de France on Friday night, in much the same way that a tabby cat is family with a tiger.
Not that it matters a damn given that England won against a team two spots above them in the rankings before the tournament and even though they were a man down for 77 minutes. When you put it like that this must rank, in a strange way, as one of their very best World Cup performances.
It was a very ugly kind of beautiful, which did not stop the tens of thousands of English fans pouring out into Marseille afterwards from enjoying every sweet, stodgy, second of it.
Their team have turned up for the biggest party in the sport in a work shirt, a sensible pair of shoes and with hours of chat about the best way to navigate around the roadworks on the way back. God, but you don’t want to get stuck in a corner with them. Which was exactly the mistake Argentina made.
On the evidence of this match, whatever their union is paying Michael Cheika it’s more than the head coach deserves. Argentina had the wit and creativity of a sack of wet cement. There was more life in the corpse the guards hurled over the cliffs on the Chateau d’If. At least the Count of Monte Cristo was only pretending to be dead when they did it.
Argentina actually played better against England – and scored exactly as many points while they were at it – when they had to play with 14 themselves in their pool stage game in 2019, which they lost 39-10 after Tomás Lavanini was sent off for a reckless tackle on Owen Farrell. Eight of this England team played in that match. Borthwick decided to bet on experience, and it paid off for him.
Their World Cup was less than three minutes old when it took a turn for the worse, which is some feat, given that the day started with the Rugby Football Union’s CEO, Bill Sweeney, giving Borthwick the same public backing he repeatedly offered Eddie Jones last year, and that Borthwick himself was booed by the crowd when his name was read out loud before kick-off. But they managed it when Tom Curry rushed in on Juan Cruz Mallía as he leapt to claim a kick and then collided heads with him as he landed. It was England’s third red card in four Tests, all for the very same offence, and meant that all of a sudden, England had Manu Tuilagi packing down on the openside.
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One red for a blow to the head may be unlucky, two is careless, but three, apparently, is an inspiration. England were prepared for the situation, they knew exactly what to do, and did it superbly too.
The match began to turn their way almost immediately when they repelled a series of short drives off the back of an attacking lineout when the score was still 3-3. You felt Argentina were sure to score. But no. The attack foundered on Courtney Lawes, England’s captain winning a crucial turnover right under the posts.
After that, George Ford took over. He snapped one, two, three drop goals, and England somehow went in with a 12-3 lead at half-time. The first two were hit from so deep in the pocket that the Argentinians couldn’t get anywhere near him.
It was an ice cool performance by Ford, who made a string of brilliant decisions under immense pressure while, to be blunt, England’s attack flapped about around him butchering every chance that came their way. At one point Jonny May managed to end a four-on two overlap by carrying the ball straight out of play. So thank goodness for Ford, who weighed the game, adapted and overcame.
It may just be that Ford has played so much of his Test rugby on the shoulder, and in the shadow, of his great mate Farrell, but this felt by far his most authoritative performance for England, and the first time he’s taken control of a big game all by himself.
He followed the three drop goals with five penalties in the second half, so that, by the end, England made winning look much easier than it must have been. Their World Cup is off and rumbling. There’s already a hint of 2007 about it, and the last World Cup in France, when an England team full of old hands managed to grind their way to the final after being beaten 36-0 by South Africa.
On this evidence, there are plenty of teams in the tournament who can beat England, but there’s not one who will enjoy the 80 minutes it will take them to do it, or come through it without an awful bruising.