Following a 26-23 victory for England over Argentina in the Rugby World Cup Bronze Final, here’s our five takeaways from the game at the Stade de France.
The top line
England took third place in the 2023 Rugby World Cup as a calm display of territorial and aerial dominance saw them overcome an excellent running exhibition from Argentina, as Steve Borthwick’s men came out on top, with Owen Farrell’s boot separating the teams.
Some doubt the validity of a Bronze Final, but this match had full Test match intensity and provided the 77,000 crowd with a thrilling and close spectacle.
Borthwick had gone on record as saying that a win was crucial for England; firstly in order to see off a number of incredible servants to the shirt, but also as a mock preparation programme for any future knockout match situations, something echoed by his opposite number Michael Cheika.
His wish came true via tries from Ben Earl, a brilliant incursion into the line that typifies his appetite with ball in hand, and a lovely moment of solo determination from Theo Dan.
Argentina threw everything they could at the match in the dying moments, but they never quite did enough to get a foothold in England’s red zone and it was fitting that Earl, England’s player of the tournament, was the man to sprint off the back of the scrum to set up the final ruck of his team’s campaign.
England do enough
There still is a lack of fluidity and trust of handling in the England backline, but there’s no doubt of the quality of their forwards, defence and kicking game. Farrell yet again drove his team single-mindedly towards their win, his sheer determination and focus characterising everything good about his team. England’s tries came through forward invention rather than back creativity, but it doesn’t matter where they come from at this stage in the team’s evolution.
You might question the trust of the England backline to keep ball in hand going coast to coast to recycle, choosing to push kicks in behind when other teams may well have recycled through phases and it’s clear that England must develop a greater degree of continuity to get past the very best defences. There were signs of experimentation; the pendulum of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward alternating in the back, the work of Earl in the wider channels and it’s obvious England are working hard to improve their attacking returns.
Sam Underhill tackled his heart out on his return, racking up 24 hits in an abrasive display, but the openside got turned over on a number of occasions which detracted a little from his overall performance, and his Player of the Match award was a tad surprising given Earl’s explosive heroics.
But rugby is a game of territory and that was at the heart of England’s plan in Paris and it was enough, just, to see them home.
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 27, 2023
In terms of attacking options, Los Pumas were some distance ahead of England in terms of ambition and pace. Tomas Cubelli, Santi Carreras and Mateo Carreras showed some absolutely magnificent touches in attack, with the Santi Carreras try, as he beat both Dan and Ellis Genge to fly over, a score from the very top drawer.
With both of their flankers putting in incredible shifts both sides of the ball, Marcos Kremer in particular demonstrating why so many pundits are describing him as one of the players of the tournament, Argentina possibly deserved slightly more from their ambition than they returned and it will be a frustration for them and their coach Cheika that they just fell short.
Part of that was, unusually, down to goal kicking, as Los Pumas blew an obvious chance in the 71st minute to level the scores and they will rue their ability to convert pace into points in a match with such fine margins.
The curtain falls
England and Argentina leave the tournament with their heads held high, finishing higher in the competition than a lot of their more illustrious rivals – notably France, Ireland and Australia. Whilst some may point to the seedings as fuel to their relative success, you can only play what’s in front of you and whilst Los Pumas have probably just exceeded their own expectations, England have surpassed theirs by some distance.
Borthwick’s men can return over the channel with pride intact and heads held high after a quite wonderful improvement, and have a solid platform on which to launch their future campaigns.
But as the teams finish their campaigns, so a number of greats of each nation bid international rugby farewell. Cap centurions Dan Cole and Ben Youngs have been both immense and often underappreciated – both Lions Test players. Cole in particular is close to an almost irreplaceable player for England, as evidenced by his immense scrummaging in this tournament, and it’s unclear who will be his direct replacement, although Will Stuart impressed in the tight on Friday.
For Agustin Creevy, he has been as indispensable a front-row forward as Cole, a warrior in blue and white and yet another world-class hooker from the land that loves scrummaging. His loss may not be felt as deeply as others, with Julian Montoya already firmly instilled as first choice and leader, but that doesn’t denude Creevy’s immense impact on Argentinian rugby.
With Danny Care also hanging up those wonderful footballing boots and David Ribbans taking an enforced break from Test rugby as he heads to the sun of Toulon, England have lost some considerable talent as their tournament closes, but the exciting thing is they’ve discovered as much new as they have lost old.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) October 27, 2023
Those players include England’s standout and one of the players of the tournament, the absolutely brilliant Earl, who has made the number eight shirt his own. Sure, he might lack inches compared to the traditional model of a British eight, but given rugby now sees players like Kwagga Smith and Jasper Wiese selected on skill fit over size fit, his ability to carry at pace and support in wide channels is something English back-rows have missed for too long. He added 4kg before this tournament and looks to be approaching world-class levels as a loose forward.
His try on Friday, latching on to a line incursion from the fleet footed Smith was just deserts for a magnificent tournament, but Smith himself remains something of a conundrum for England. Does he have the match control as a Test 10? Not at the moment – but the value he adds in a similar role as Damian McKenzie fulfils for New Zealand might yet be key as Borthwick’s attack evolves. He fixes defenders, is deadly once past the primary line and is a wonderful counterpoint of chaos to the structure that England favour.
With Dan also impressing, especially his charge-down and scoring reply after the disappointment of waving Santi Carreras through for a try, and others not involved in this match such as George Martin, it’s fair to say that the Red Rose have moved forward in terms of their player stocks.
For Los Pumas, a word for two young stars – in the back-row Juan Martin Gonzalez, the man whose run set up the first Argentinian try, has been absolutely magnificent all tournament and looks a cap centurion in the making. And two rows in front of him, a word for the barrelling loosehead, Thomas Gallo, a man that does enough at scrum time but is capable of some amazing work with ball in hand.
The baby faced prop is maturing with every game and was a feature of Argentina’s fightback in this match.
It’s very much the end of a cycle for both of these teams but it’s obvious the green shoots of recovery are visible and well into their growth programme for the future.