Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Owen Farrell in the thick of things and other talking points as England ease into knockouts

Argentine Lavanini's sending-off and Underhill's clinical effort are the main takeaways from bruising Rugby World Cup contest

England earned a place in the knockout stage of the Rugby World Cup at the earliest possible opportunity, as they beat Argentina 39-10 in Tokyo.

It was their third bonus-point win at the start of the tournament, and means they are already assured of a quarter-final berth, even with their final pool match against France still to play.

So far, so good, therefore for England – although they will be bearing a few scars after a bruising encounter with the Argentines, as they plot their path to the business stage of the competition.

Red mist

Matches between England and Argentina are rarely tickling contests.

Right back to the moment 29 years ago when 18-year-old Argentina prop Federico Mendez was sent off for dropping Paul Ackford at Twickenham, the fixture has been marked by violence.

Their 2019 Rugby World Cup meeting was no different. In just the sixth minute, England were warned by referee Nigel Owens for committing three penalty offences in the space of one play.

Shortly after, there was a multi-player scuffle. Then, in the 18th minute, there was the defining moment in the match: Tomas Lavanini sent off for a reckless high shot on Owen Farrell.

Many rugby fans around the world might have felt the identity of the victim was ironic.

But that of the culprit was more predictable. Lavanini has seen more cards than any other player in Pumas history, with five yellows and two reds.

Farrell high shots

When a disconsolate Lavanini was trudging off the field, the cameras panned to England supporters in the stands bearing a sign saying: “Hands off our Farrell.”

Given all the debate in recent years over the legality of Farrell’s own tackling technique, it is fair to point out he can probably look after himself.

But he has been the subject of two high shots in successive matches that have seen players sent off: Lavanini this time, and United States flanker John Quill in the previous fixture.

Farrell did acknowledge before the tournament that he has modified his tackling technique to try to steer clear of controversies over high hits. But he still cannot avoid them.

CHOFU, JAPAN - OCTOBER 05: Sam Underhill of England charges upfield during the Rugby World Cup 2019 Group C game between England and Argentina at Tokyo Stadium on October 05, 2019 in Chofu, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Sam Underhill of England in Tokyo. Getty

Underhill’s award

It figured that Martyn Williams, the great Wales flanker, might select an openside as the player of the match.

In a game in which his side scored five tries, Sam Underhill offered little to England’s attack.

Yet his match award was well merited for a defensive display that was notable both for being tireless – as is typical of him – and clean, too.

Williams made a point on commentary of assessing Underhill’s tackling technique. He suggested that those falling foul of the crackdown on dangerous play might want to employ the Underhill method of going low.

There were plenty of examples to choose from. England’s No 7 made 16 successful tackles in the game.

Ford’s fiesta

If Henry Slade had been fit a month ago, would George Ford be in the England team? It is impossible to say for sure, but maybe not.

Now, though, he is one of the first names on the team sheet, and has a firm grip on the No 10 shirt that might have been earmarked for Farrell.

Having been player of the match last time out against United States, the diminutive fly-half was sparkling again.

He got a try of his own, laid on the opening score for his side with a deft pass for Jonny May, and his tactical kicking was impeccable. Most spectacularly when a low kick deep into Argentina’s 22 clipped the corner flag before heading into touch.

Billy lacking fizz

When quizzed on the reason for Billy Vunipola’s half-time substitution, England coach Eddie Jones attempted to laugh it off, suggesting the big No 8 had had “too much Kobe beef”.

The mirth might have been disguising more serious concerns, though. Vunipola was wearing significant strapping on an ankle injury sustained in the first half.

Even before suffering that injury, though, the Saracens powerhouse had been conspicuously out of sorts – and not for the first time in this World Cup.

He made two knock-ons in the first 10 minutes of the game, and lacked the carrying threat that he usually has when at the peak of his powers.

Updated: October 5, 2019 06:30 PM

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