England’s World Cup ends as it started, a hard-fought win over Argentina to ensure a third-place finish that Steve Borthwick will be content with when he comes to pore over the past few months.
It wasn’t particularly pretty but Tom Curry was at the heart of a gritty, scrappy victory rounding off a difficult week for the England flanker on a high and neatly bookending his side’s campaign.
Borthwick has taken every opportunity to remind anyone listening that England were “written off” after a dismal warmup campaign so finishing third has exceeded expectations. They fell short – just – against the only genuinely elite side they faced but third place is not to be sniffed at given he only took the job 10 months ago.
Identifying the point of this “bronze final” fixture remains a task easier said than done but, if anything, it served as a reminder that these two sides are considerably short of those that contest Saturday’s final.
England might have run the Springboks mightily close last week but there is a gulf in quality between the sides who lost their semi-finals and those that won them.
England struggled to get going in attack, as they have done for large parts of this tournament, but tries from Ben Earl, Theo Dan and 16 points from Owen Farrell were enough to see off a plucky Argentina side. Only eight of the players who started England’s opening match ran out here, including Curry, who led the side out on his 50th cap.
Curry has had a trying week to put it mildly but Borthwick was adamant that the flanker was desperate to play amid the furore surrounding allegations he was subjected to racially abusive behaviour. Despite boos for a number of his teammates as the starting lineup was read out to the crowd before the match, Curry was loudly cheered by the England faithful. He acknowledged their support, too, when Farrell and co let him run out on to the pitch alone, strictly speaking to mark his half-century but an opportunity for supporters to give him their backing.
His head was bandaged, his nose strapped up but his determination to get back to what he does best was evident. Borthwick also handed a 127th and final England appearance to Ben Youngs at scrum-half, showing a rare sentimental side given the 34-year-old had previously been restricted to two appearances off the bench, but that aside it was a team picked with an eye on the future.
Dan Cole and Danny Care – both players who are expected to call time on their international careers after the tournament– were selected on the bench but in the tight five, back row and back three, Borthwick plumped for players who he will come to rely on in the next World Cup cycle. In that regard, the back three of Henry Arundell, Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward may hint at Borthwick’s plans for next year’s Six Nations.
Curry’s first significant intervention came after just 90 seconds, putting his bandaged head where it hurts to win a penalty at the breakdown. Farrell – despite repeated booing – comfortably converted for a 3-0 lead. Before the opening 10 minutes were up, England had the opening try, a lovely move finished by Earl after a slick bit of interplay between the No 8 and Smith.
Given Earl has arguably been England’s standout performer of the tournament, it is a combination we are likely to see plenty more of in the coming years. Argentina worked themselves a foothold in the game by targeting Smith aerially and with no little success.
On the first occasion he was beaten to the ball by Emiliano Boffelli, the second Smith gathered the ball but he was penalised for holding on and the Argentina right winger got his side on the board with a penalty in front of the posts.
Another Farrell penalty pushed England’s lead out to 13 but Earl’s try aside, they were clunky with ball in hand and were punished when Argentina’s scrum-half Tomás Cubelli finished off an excellent try after the Pumas had broken down the left.
If neutral French spectators had chosen to give England their backing last week on the basis that they were not the Springboks, it was clear that Argentina had their support here and Cubelli’s try – converted by Boffelli – was cheered to the rafters. A pass in the buildup looked suspiciously forward but after a brief consultation with the TMO, the try was awarded by the referee Nic Berry.