Rugby World Cup 2023: England joy and relief after 27-10 win over Argentina
Hours before kick-off in Marseille they came piling out of Metro Rond Du Prado and headed slowly down the Boulevard Michelet to meet their own folk, a giant mass of Puma supporters bedecked in blue and white.
They sang the songs that became famous when their footballers were crowned champions of the world last year, they gathered in their thousands at the foot of the stairs to the Stade Velodrome drinking in the atmosphere of what maybe they thought was going to be their night against weak and anaemic England, an England they’d already beaten at Twickenham, an England that were supposedly there for the taking.
How could they have known that the sickly England of before would gather themselves in this way? All the pressure in the rugby world and down to 14 men – again – after less than a handful of minutes? You’d have bet the house on Argentina at that point – and you’d be looking for new digs today.
It wasn’t quite the game of England’s dreams, but it was a win they needed, a victory that will make their skies brighter, their mood happier and the questions from their doubters softer.
Watching them thanking their fans in the aftermath of their 27-10 victory you could sense not just joy at a victory but relief, too. There are still a ton of questions to answer and there is no chance of England doing anything truly substantial in this tournament with resilience alone.
They had truckloads of it against Argentina and they were impressive in the way they blasted through adversity.
Their attacking game is still not so much a work-in-progress as hard work, though. They didn’t have a whole lot in the way of ambition on that front, but they found another way and George Ford was the guy with the torch leading them out of the darkness of recent months – and years.
Ford was a colossus in kicking his penalties and landing his drop-goals. No Englishman has ever kept a scoreboard ticking over in a World Cup game quite like Ford did at the Velodrome. Jannie de Beer, the five-drop Bok of 1999, might have been shifting uncomfortably in his seat when the fly-half nailed his hat-trick with an entire half to play.
England played a limited game because that’s all that England have right now. Ford recognised that and took charge. That was leadership, that was game management, that was rugby intelligence.
They weren’t good enough to break down the Pumas with their deception and pace and accuracy in the attack, but they did them for power and for nous. Argentina were distraught at the end.
Their coach, Michael Cheika, is not known as one of rugby’s calmest characters when things are going awry for him or his team and he will have been shocked and incensed at how his players were bossed by 14 Englishmen.
Boy, did England need this and, boy, did they deserve it. Every part of their existence as a rugby team has been pored over this past while and the analysis has been unsparing.
Nobody knew what England were trying to do. Players who weren’t selected for the original World Cup squad were suddenly parachuted into the World Cup team.
The entire set-up had become the butt of all jokes. There were memes and gifs mocking Steve Borthwick and his players; their defeats and their red cards, their lack of tries and the vast distance they had fallen behind not just the biggest of big guns but also Fiji.
They had fallen to eighth in the world. Borthwick had won 33% of his Tests in charge. Twickenham had turned and some of the dissenters had made it out to Marseille.
Dominant England forwards – and we can include Manu Tuilagi as an honorary member of the crew given the shift he put in – and the cleverness of Ford changed all of that. From being abused to being serenaded, the England players went on a journey at the Velodrome.
There are things they’ll wake up to that will trouble them, of course. Tom Curry is facing a ban and it’s unlikely that their rugby lawyer to beat all rugby lawyers is going to get him off. England’s discipline issues are startling. Their red card count is bewilderingly high.
Owen Farrell watched from the stands in Marseille. What does Borthwick do with his captain once he’s free from suspension?
Ford seems to be liberated when he is running the show out there, he seems a different player when he’s not under Farrell’s shadow. So many times in the recent past, England have lacked control but Ford delivered it in the most stunning way.
He left the field to a mighty ovation from the England fans – and he deserved every cheer. They were crying out for somebody to bring order to the chaos and Ford did it.
So England are on their way. We can’t be sure where, precisely, they’re going, but this was a forward step towards a better place.
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