OLIVER HOLT: England didn’t fold… they took the breath away against Argentina, with George Ford the hero of one of most stirring World Cup displays
There is a bronze sculpture near the Vieux Port called Bleu de Chine. It depicts a man newly-arrived in Marseille, with a case in his left hand. Much of his upper body is missing. He has no right arm and no stomach.
England fans strolled past it in the sunshine before the match on their way to lunch. Some took pictures. Until last night, they might have regarded it as a symbol of their team, a team that has played like hollow men for too long.
That all changed in the cauldron of the Stade Velodrome, though. That all changed when blindside flanker Tom Curry was sent off after just three minutes of England’s opening World Cup tie against Argentina and the Pumas scented blood.
It changed because, instead of folding, instead of disappearing, an England team that has stumbled from one mishap to another, one controversy to another, one defeat to another, reached deep inside themselves and discovered a quite magnificent defiance.
No stomach for the fight? Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not last night anyway. If Curry’s dismissal was yet another example of their indiscipline, they reacted to it with a display of such bravery and skill and guile that it took the breath away.
George Ford played a dazzling game as England got their Rugby World Cup off with a flyer
Tom Curry was the first England player dismissed at a Rugby World Cup after an early tackle
Stand-in captain Courtney Lawes was a titan, one of several outstanding players for England
Yes, they were aided by a desperately disappointing performance from Argentina but that was partly because the Pumas seemed so taken aback by England’s refusal to bow to their setback and bow to their recent history of mediocrity.
Instead, England stood up. And out of all the doubts and criticism that have plagued them in the build-up to this tournament, they produced what will go down as one of their most stirring performances at a World Cup. Their hero was George Ford who destroyed Argentina with three drop goals in swift succession in the first half and, in the absence of Owen Farrell, played like the general that he so often is in club rugby but which he is rarely allowed to be with England.
Ford was magnificent. He scored all 27 of England’s points. Stand-in captain Courtney Lawes was a titan, too. So was Maro Itoje, and the entirety of the England pack. This was a victory against all odds. It was also a victory for beleaguered England coach Steve Borthwick. Borthwick was being lampooned before this match, characterised as a weak leader who could not motivate his team. This was his moment of truth. No one could say his players did not play for him. No one could say they did not respond to his leadership.
In this cauldron of a stadium, this cauldron of a city, this teeming port that is rarely kind to the vulnerable, England stood tall. This will not change everything but it means they are likely to win Pool D. It will sent belief flooding through them. Out of uplifting nights like this, momentum can quickly build and this felt like the kind of night that could change everything.
England had got off to the worst possible start when Curry, whose return to the side had been such a source of optimism, smashed his head into Juan Cruz Mallia as Mallia took a high ball.
Mallia had to go to the changing rooms for treatment to his wound, Curry was shown a yellow card and sent to the sin bin and Argentina kicked the resulting penalty from half-way. The decision was upgraded to a red card a few minutes later. Curry is the first England rugby union player to be sent off at a World Cup.
He also became the first England number 7 to be sent off in a World Cup game against Argentina in France since David Beckham achieved that distinction in Saint-Etienne in 1998. And the third England rugby player to be shown a red card since August. England’s talent for adding to their own woes beggared belief.
Once again, England’s lack of discipline and lack of intelligence and lack of responsibility were under the spotlight when they needed to do everything they possibly could to keep their best players on the pitch.
And even though Curry’s red seemed harsh, it was hard not to draw a line between it and the way England had tried to blame everyone except Owen Farrell during the furore over the England skipper’s punishment for a dangerous tackle against Wales last month. That unwillingness to take responsibility for actions breeds consequences.
England were not the only culprits. Soon after, Santiago Carreras flattened George Ford with a high, late tackle and was shown a yellow card, too. Carreras’ tackle looked more dangerous than Curry’s. It carried echoes of Harold Schumacher’s assault on Patrick Battiston at the 1982 football World Cup. But Carreras’ punishment was not upgraded.
The referee showed a yellow card to Argentina’s Santiago Carreras for a bad looking challenge
Steve Borthwick’s England side found reserves of belief and drive that few knew they held
Ford played like he was two men, and led England’s refusal to fold despite the early setback
If everyone expected England to fold after such a brutal setback, though, they were surprised. England did not fold. Aided by some sloppy play from their opponents, Borthwick’s side found reserves of belief and drive that few knew they possessed.
From the depths of despair, they mounted a stirring comeback. They played as if they had an extra man on the pitch, not one fewer. That was mainly because Ford played as if he were two men.
He led England’s refusal to submit, kicking three drop goals in ten minutes to put England 12-3 up. England’s pack played like lions, too. It was magnificent defiance.
England never wavered after that and Argentina had no answer. And so, after a day of sweltering heat in a city where riots and conflagration have greeted visiting England football teams twice in the past 25 years, a city thronged with Argentina fans, a city that is not a comfortable place for the vulnerable, England finally looked like a team that had been made whole again.