If this was a glimpse of England’s future then it rather resembles their past. Steve Borthwick’s squad will leave France with bits of bronze in their pockets, outlasting Argentina in an entertaining affair to decide third spot despite threatening a familiar fourth quarter fade to defeat.
The England players slapped shoulders and shared hugs, happy enough with a World Cup medal of any kind at the end of a long and rigorous tournament. Perhaps this was always the likeliest summit, a short three steps up on to a rapidly-erected rostrum to collect their decoration and reflect on some progress made.
This was something of a changing of the guard for England, bidding adieu to Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and a couple of others marking Test farewells, while also looking at the core coming through to lead Borthwick’s side into the next cycle.
Seven of England’s starting XV here were 25 or under, a young nucleus around which Borthwick will now look to build. They will head home with bronze medals, a fair enough achievement for a group of players who would have recognised overall triumph was always unlikely, much as they rose to the challenge impressively last weekend.
It was a mixed bag of a performance from England’s next generation, some good, some bad. Henry Arundell departed after 65 minutes with an almost pristine white shirt as if just back from the dry cleaners, a single carry for 5m, a tackle and a horrible hacked kick his only involvements from a disappointing evening.
His back-three colleague Marcus Smith was busier, producing a performance to show both the merits. For every flick and trick in possession there was a general air of insecurity under the high ball – Smith at 15 most certainly has merit but is best tagged a work in progress.
Hooker Theo Dan exemplified a bitty evening with contrasting involvements in two tries in two second-half minutes. The young Saracens front rower was cast aside much too easily by Santiago Carreras’s outstanding solo effort but immediately atoned, blocking the Argentina fly half’s kick and scooping up the debris to score himself.
It perhaps best illustrated a night that will have left some ambivalent about England’s Test adolescents, hard not to be encouraged by the zip and zing that they may come to offer, but recognising that only really Ben Earl has emerged as something resembling the finished article at this tournament. Even Freddie Steward looked out of sorts, England’s pillar of stability less valuable on the right wing than in a more central structural role.
The sub-25 group included Tom Curry on the occasion of his 50th cap, a product of his precocity. After a difficult week off the field, the flanker looked rather glad to be on it, contesting at two of Argentina’s first five breakdowns and winning a holding on penalty at the second of them. Captain Owen Farrell put England in front.
England had managed to convincingly beat Argentina in their opening game without crossing the try line, but righted that wrong eight minutes in. A sparky carry from pocket-rocket hooker Dan created momentum, allowing Farrell and Smith to go to work at the line, two swift transfers in-and-out of the hands sending Earl bustling through on a neat angle.
It had been an energetic opening from England, Curry and Sam Underhill back in tandem on the flanks and enjoying one another’s company, the so-called “kamikaze kids” returning for a one-night-only reunion gig and enjoying being back in one another’s company. Ellis Genge, meanwhile, took out the frustrations of last weekend on anything vaguely in his vicinity, peeling back Argentina tighthead Francisco Gomez Kodela to prevent Argentina building from a scrum 10m from England’s line.
A side that have stuck so rigidly to their gameplan during their time in France were unlikely to wrap ties around their heads and play truant on the last day of term, but there were signs of a bit more freedom. Farrell at one point right at the forefront of an ambitious, and eventually aborted, adventure out of his own 22, the teacher’s pet showing his classmates the way.
Farrell had brought his kicking boots, even if one drop goal attempt had to be abandoned due to the imminent arrival of an angry Argentine. A third penalty re-extended England’s 13-point advantage after Emiliano Boffelli had put his side on the board from the tee.
At that point, the many South Americans inside the Stade de France were starting to fear the worst, an error-strewn performance so reminiscent of their meek showing on both the opening and semi-final weekends. But the Pumas grew into it, with soon-to-be Saracen Juan Martin Gonzalez prominent, at one point making a solo spring to snaffle lineout ball up the front and beat four defenders on a rampage up the right.
It was his gambol up the left touchline that led to Argentina’s first try, though it was a surprise that Lucio Cinti’s pass, that was a good few inches forward, to free the blindside did not prompt an intervention from the TMO. As it was, Gonzalez galloped on, before some lively phase play allowed Tomas Cubelli to dummy his way to the line. This was the Argentina we had so hoped to see more consistently across the tournament.
Michael Cheika’s side were in front almost immediately after the interval thanks to bit of individual brilliance from fly half Carreras. There appeared little of promise in front of him as he ambled at the English line, but having rid himself of Dan, Carreras scampered free of Genge, too. Smith was stepped to complete a sensational solo score under the posts – Argentina’s chief playmaker has not been at his best across the tournament but this was a reminder of the running threat he offers.
But that sort of ability with ball in hand comes as a compromise, with Carreras still yet to round out his game as a Test 10. From the restart after his try, he laboured a little too long over a clearance, allowing Dan to make immediate amends with a charge down. The hooker was fastest to the loose ball; England were back in front.
It took Arundell until the 48th minute to have his first touch, a single missed tackle his only first-half involvement. A sliced kick went about 30m up but only five forwards, the error of boot exacerbated by presence of an offside England player in pursuit. It allowed Boffelli an opportunity to narrow the gap, and the wing took it.
The momentum seemed to be with Argentina but they couldn’t quite make their possession and territory count. Farrell and replacement Nicolas Sanchez traded penalties to keep the margin at three in England’s favour. There it remained, Sanchez dragging a penalty from the left touchline wide having been granted an opportunity to level the scores late on.
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