MARSEILLE, France: England were written off before a ball was kicked against Argentina at the Rugby World Cup. Even more so after an early red card. Another stinging defeat appeared likely for the struggling former champions.
But England came alive under the pressure in Marseille in a performance driven by sheer guts to beat Argentina 27-10 on Saturday and mute some of the criticism that’s come the team’s way over the last month.
Stand-in flyhalf George Ford kicked all of England’s points, including three sweetly hit drop goals in the space of eight minutes in the first half, to leave under-fire coach Steve Borthwick smiling broadly — a rare picture lately considering his team’s deep rut of form heading into this tournament.
England were down a man from two minutes in at Stade Velodrome after flanker Tom Curry’s head clash with Juan Cruz Mallia resulted, first, in a yellow card and then a red under rugby’s new bunker review system.
A 14-man England responded to take nearly every chance that came their way from a careless Argentina to start Pool D with a big win that no one saw coming.
It was even given royal approval, with Catherine, Princess of Wales, at the game and applauding and smiling near the end with England’s victory minutes away.
“It could have gone very wrong, but we dug in for each other,” said England captain and flanker Courtney Lawes, who was at the heart of a spirited performance. “It’s fantastic to be able to get a win.”
Ford kicked everything for a flawless night with his right boot. His run of drops started in the 27th minute and the second came from out near halfway. They took England from 3-3 and a tight start to 12-3 ahead in the blink of an eye. Ford also landed six penalties in a game-winning performance from a man stepping in at No. 10 because of a suspension for regular captain Owen Farrell for a red card in a World Cup warmup.
“It’s a great weapon for us, especially when the ball’s a bit greasy,” Ford said of the drop goal tactic. “Also, we went a man down early on and we had to come away with as many points as possible when we had field position. We managed to do that.”
England even bossed the set-piece despite being a forward down, as Argentina’s errors and penalty count gave it no chance to fight back in a game many had the Pumas as favorites to win considering the form the English were in. England had lost six of nine games this year under Borthwick, including an embarassing defeat by underdog Fiji in its last game.
Argentina replacement Rodrigo Bruni scored the only try in the last minute when it was already over, as Argentina finally put a string of phases together without making a mistake to wear down an heroic England defense that had already done its job.
The 80th-minute try was Argentina’s first points since Emiliano Boffelli gave it a 3-0 lead after four minutes. Between the scores, England repelled everything else.
“The attitude of the team to go until the last minute and score a try is important,” Argentina captain Julian Montoya said. “We need to figure out why we didn’t do that for the 80 minutes.”
Curry became the first player to receive a red card at the Rugby World Cup via the bunker review system after he raced into a tackle upright and his head smashed into Mallia’s as the Argentina fullback came down to ground after catching a high kick. Curry was initially shown a yellow card by referee Mathieu Raynal but the tackle was put on review.
The yellow was upgraded to red, meaning Curry played no more part and his first game back since May because of injury lasted barely three minutes. He briefly put his head in his hands on the sidelines, then got up and started to peel off the bandage medics had applied to fix a cut that came from the clash.
Mallia also needed treatment after the tackle opened a big gash over his eye.
It was England’s third red card in four games, with Farrell and No. 8 Billy Vunipola both suspended for high shots to complicate England’s buildup.
To nitpick, a patched-up England missing other frontline players was restricted on attack against the Pumas and didn’t show a huge amount of enterprise, relying heavily on its set-piece and high kicks from Ford to build the pressure and win territory and points-scoring opportunities.
But, if there was a performance Borthwick had envisaged from his players after he called on them to show something — even if it was just defiance — this was it.
“I am really pleased for the players,” Borthwick said. “They felt that people were writing them off a little bit too early.”