CHRIS FOY: England won hearts and minds in Argentina victory

CHRIS FOY: England arrived in France with little hope but Red Roses won hearts and minds in convincing opening win against Argentina as World Cup campaign got off to the perfect start

  • England beat Argentina 27-10 in World Cup opener despite chaotic preparation
  • The backs-to-the-wall victory should get the public back behind the Red Roses 
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results
  • Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results

England fans who came to Stade Velodrome on Saturday night had to endure a lot just to make it to their seats, but ended up with a full return on that uncomfortable effort.

Those present to support the underdogs became part of a re-connection event between team and public. It felt like a watershed. By the end, they were dancing in the stands. Hours later, they were still singing in the streets outside.

Coaches and players had spoken about wanting to get the English nation behind them and they did that in spades in this logic-defying World Cup opener. Anyone quibbling about a win founded solely on kicking points wasn’t there to witness this in person; the gutsy performance and the striking scenes all around it.

When England did their lap of honour, the noise was remarkable. It was an out-pouring of joy at seeing something positive at last, after so much despondency. People had come with little hope but left euphoric.

Before kick-off, England supporters had booed Borthwick when his name was announced in the stadium. That won’t happen again any time soon. They had also sat quiet and passive as Argentine fans chanted and bounced in the stands, but by the end it was an English cacophony. There was bedlam when George Ford landed his second drop goal; the astonishing one from halfway.

England got their World Cup campaign underway with a 27-10 win against Argentina on Saturday

A gutsy performance in Marseille saw England pull off the victory despite being reduced to 14 men early on

Steve Borthwick was booed by England fans ahead of the game but that is unlikely to continue for long

What a remarkable mood shift. Yesterday morning, Springbok fans walking by the Vieux Port were congratulating passing England supporters on this thunderous victory. What a turn-around.

Hours earlier, the players had come through to face the media in high spirits. Maro Itoje joked about a return to ‘Nineties rugby’ with the drop-goal strategy. Manu Tuilagi was full of wide-eyed delight about being allowed to join the scrum — in place of the banished Tom Curry — while stood in his socks, patiently fielding a stream of questions.

Ford was swamped by cameras and microphones, and there was an amusing interlude when Dan Cole turned up, with a towel around his neck, and they exchanged tongue-in-cheek compliments in front of reporters. Joe Marler was going round hugging people. Players enjoyed a well-deserved beer, having been joined for a post-match chat by the Princess of Wales. After all the doom and gloom, this was such emphatic respite.

But the performance assessment was suitably measured. In trying circumstances, England came up with a plan which worked, against these opponents, on this occasion. ‘It wasn’t perfect,’ said Cole.

‘We were down to 14. There is only so much you can do attack-wise when you are bringing a centre into the scrum to push.’

The tone had been set by captain-for-a-crisis Courtney Lawes, in the 24th minute, when he won a turnover penalty in front of his own posts, as the Pumas were pounding towards the English line. A try for Michael Cheika’s side then might have made for a very different result. Instead, England celebrated, cleared and were inspired. ‘When your captain is doing that, it is massive for the rest of the team,’ said Cole.

The Princess of Wales visited the players in the changing room after the game to celebrate the win

George Ford scored all 27 of England’s points in a fantastic kicking display

Despite being under-manned, after Curry’s third-minute yellow card was upgraded to a red, they grew as the game went on. In the second half, there were shades of the semi-final win over New Zealand in the last World Cup, as England shut down Argentina all over the field.

It was absorbing rugby in its own right, despite the lack of razzle-dazzle. Just before Maro Itoje won another vital breakdown penalty, he, Lawes and Ben Earl were hunting Pumas with such relentless energy and tenacity and intensity that the South Americans were back-pedalling in disarray.

By then, there was utter English dominance. Scrum – tick. Lineout – tick. Maul – tick. Defence – big tick. After all the talk of progress, here it was actually coming to life. It was heroic and enthralling, even without a try-scoring flourish. Nobody was expecting miracles and perfection, just something, anything to reignite some belief and interest. This will generate belief. This will generate interest.

It has been a long time since the national team last created such a buzz. It wasn’t rugby Baz-ball, but those roaring on the victors loved it just the same. Two weeks on from the alarming capitulation against Fiji, England’s staples were sound and their fitness was highly impressive. Despite having just 14 men on the field for 77 minutes, they were still going strong at the end.

Certain stalwarts of the side were transformed. It was Itoje’s best performance for England since the last World Cup. Easily. Ellis Genge was up nearer his peak again, as was Freddie Steward. And when he wasn’t providing emergency set-piece support to the forwards, Tuilagi was firing savage shots in midfield – the biggest of all wiping out Santiago Chocobares.

So where to from here? England will re-group back in Le Touquet, their northern base, and prepare to face struggling Japan with the tournament opening up in front of them. Having dispatched the team who were supposed to be their primary Pool D rivals – but were instead an abject rabble – Borthwick’s squad should go on to qualify in first place.

Tom Curry was sent off early on after making contact with the head of Argentina’s Juan Cruz Mallia

Manu Tuilagi delivered some big hits for England in a committed defensive display

Given how Australia took major strides forward in their win over Georgia, the smart money now is on England facing Wales or Fiji in Marseille in the quarter-finals. If real progress continues in the coming weeks, there would be renewed optimism ahead of that potential fixture. Any further and England would face opponents who won’t succumb to the same limited game-plan, so a broader repertoire would be needed, but they would be in bonus territory by then anyway.

Before all the hypotheticals take shape, Borthwick faces some selection dilemmas. Billy Vunipola will be available for the game against Japan in Nice next Sunday, but Earl was outstanding in this opener and deserves to keep his place. He brought vital dynamism in attack and defence.

As for Ford, his stock has never been higher. He was utterly imperious; demonstrating technical brilliance, composure, savvy leadership and masterful control of the occasion. When Owen Farrell’s ban ends, there is no way he can take the No 10 shirt back off his close friend. Borthwick has repeatedly spoken about reuniting the Ford-Farrell midfield alliance and his skipper is bound to end up at inside centre again, with Tuilagi wearing 13.

All of a sudden, England’s head coach has options to consider, from a position of strength. He will know his team need more layers, but they are on their way. And after a backs-to-the-wall victory which should go down in folklore, their public are with them again.

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