Argentina promised a war but in the end it proved to be little more than a skirmish.
England are through to the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup with a third successive win after seeing off the Pumas 39-10 in Tokyo on Saturday.
England will be delighted to have their passage into the knockout stages assured at the earliest possible stage, and yet the red card to Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini 18 minutes denied them the opportunity to tick another box.
Having eased to wins over Tonga and the USA, Saturday’s match was supposed to provide a test and help England gear up for what’s to come. Instead their win arrived with unwanted caveats.
Eddie Jones’s side lead 15-3 at half-time and eventually made the extra man and their superiority count, with late tries adding gloss to an otherwise unspectacular display.
Ford drives it home
George Ford was once again preferred to captain Owen Farrell at fly-half, and while Farrell’s game was most notable for being on the receiving end of another illegal hit and his subsequent wobbly place-kicking, Ford produced some eye-catching moments.
It was his perfectly-timed flat pass which sent Jonny May in early on for the opening try and his which Elliot Daly juggled and recovered for the second. Ford showed killer instinct to add his own score after the break and he seemed, yet again, supremely comfortable in the No10 shirt.
There have been question marks over the Leicester man in the bigger, more physical and more intense occasions, but he appears to have done enough to keep his place at the creative fulcrum for France on Saturday.
With the win secured Jones was able to give a run-out to his substitutes and they provided plenty more plus points. Centre Henry Slade and prop Mako Vunipola both returned from injury, while winger Jack Nowell did the same and reminded everyone of his qualities with a tenacious try in the corner.
The trios’ return to full fitness comes at an opportune time for Jones, who now has a squad of 31 players putting pressure on each other for their places. Ford and Farrell’s contest at No10 isn’t the only decision the Australian head coach has to ponder.
Slade’s return comes after Jonathan Joseph’s impressive showing against the USA – a game in which Piers Francis also managed to avoid a ban for a high tackle – and means there are ample options at centre.
Meanwhile, Nowell’s reemergence on the wing provides competition for current starters May and Anthony Watson, along with Joe Cokanasiga and Ruaridh McConnochie.
George Kruis has dislodged Courtney Lawes in the second row for now, but he’ll know his place isn’t safe either. Mako Vunipola is back to compete with Joe Marler, Dan Cole is pressuring Kyle Sickler, while Luke Cowan-Dickie grabbed a try off the bench against the Pumas to put his name in the hat behind Jamie George.
Chink in the armour
In truth the only place where England don’t have back-up is the chink in the armour many identified before the squad flew out to Japan: No8.
With no other specialist No8 in the squad, as usual Billy Vunipola started against Argentina. It was the Saracens forward’s 12th consecutive match for England and his seventh in two months, having played in all three World Cup matches as well as the four warm-up games.
Jones has grown used to fielding questions about England’s apparent over-reliance on Vunipola, so must have been dismayed to see him sustain an ankle problem, which forced him off at half-time. Flanker Lewis Ludlam fulfilled the role from thereon in, while Mark Wilson would likely take the spot if Vunipola’s problem were to linger.
“He’s twisted his ankle but we don’t think it’s too serious,” Jones said after the game.
England better hope so, because although they have brilliant depth elsewhere, a significant injury to Vunipola could cause untold damage to their World Cup hopes.
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