It wasn’t quite the “battle” that both teams predicted it would be, but England‘s win over Argentina was an illustrative affair.
It was something of a shame that the game was effectively ended as a contest by a red card.
The decision to send Tomas Lavanini off was absolutely the correct one – direct contact to the head of a tackled player, with force and without any mitigating factors – but it somewhat ruined what was shaping to be an even game.
Argentina started well, with physicality and intensity, and there was just a sense that this may be an off day for England.
But Argentina would have had a real fight on their hands to keep parity with 15 men, and down to 14, it was a matter of when rather than if England would pull away.
For all the talk of winning the ”war” up front ahead of the game, it was England’s backs who had the decisive say, and particularly the George Ford/Owen Farrell axis at ten and twelve.
It seemed the axis that had been so influential in England’s rebirth under Eddie Jones was cast aside ahead of this tournament, with Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi developing chemistry in the centres.
However Jones had never had opportunity to combine his two fly-halves with Tuilagi in midfield, and Slade’s untimely injury over the summer meant England could push ahead with Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi in midfield.
It now seems foolish that any other midfield was ever contemplated. England are a better side with two distributors at ten and twelve, and Tuilagi can hold the defensive line in a manner that few other thirteens can.
This creates a defence that is too compact, with teams tending to focus on Tuilagi’s game-breaking abilities in the carry, and not adequately spreading themselves.
The problem is, obviously, only exacerbated by losing a player. Ford and Farrell displayed their qualities to take advantage of an Argentina defence down a man.
First and foremost was their ability to get the ball to width. With Elliot Daly beginning to flourish as a second or third receiver playmaking from the back, England were able to move the ball wide at will, and with Anthony Watson and Jonny May’s raw pace able to stretch defences down the touchlines, Argentina’s 14 men were forced to spread themselves wide to prevent England making easy metres and generating quick ball.
Argentina didn’t defend badly at all, considering the circumstances, but they were lacking in defensive stock.
Invariably when you are down a man you either under-resource your defensive line or your backfield, and with two high-quality operators in Ford and Farrell, England could take advantage of either deficiency.
Argentina wisely opted to more often leave space in the backfield, putting their spare man in the defensive line to cover the absence of Lavanini, and generally leaving just one man to cover in behind, with neither wing able to operate a pendulum (dropping back when the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch) given England’s ability to get the ball wide quickly.
Ford and Farrell repeatedly kicked into the spaces left alongside Emiliano Boffelli, taking territory when it was offered and pushing the Pumas back.
That gave England a positional advantage, and they began to build pressure, not feeling any degree of urgency given Argentina’s predicament.
A criticism of Jones’ team during the Six Nations was that they were a touch impatient, trying to force things in the red area rather than steadily building towards the score.
England now appear to be a more patient side, and with Ford and Farrell calmly pulling the strings they broke Argentina down, utilising their bigger ball carriers intelligent to puncture holes, and then whipping the ball wide when opportunity presented itself.
Ford particularly was superb. The Leicester fly-half has developed his game over the last year or so, with his distribution now first rate and his territorial kicking far superior to where it was 12 months ago.
Tries for May, Daly, Youngs, and Ford himself took them to a comfortable bonus point win without having to truly get out of third gear, before fit again Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie added a degree of gloss late on.
This was exactly the type of game that Jones would have wanted – a challenge, yes, but a victory that conserved energy and allowed a couple of returnees to reintegrate themselves.
While England have yet to truly dazzle, they have taken maximum points from their first three games, and nobody has managed to push them particularly close thus far.
And in Ford and Farrell they have the right hands in tandem at the tiller to guide them to World Cup contendership.