For an England side in desperate need of victory, Saturday’s opening pool fixture with Argentina was simply about finding a way to win. There will surely come a time at this tournament for greater attacking invention, when a succession of strikes from George Ford’s right boot are not enough, but this was a first, vital building block for a team still in search of foundations.
While Argentina were some way short of their best, fluffing their lines with England apparently ripe for the taking, Steve Borthwick’s side surely deserve credit for the manner in which their 14 men harried and stifled their toughest Pool D opponents. This was comfortably the best showing yet for Kevin Sinfield’s defence, both accurate and intense – full back Freddie Steward had to only make one tackle and it took until the final minute for Rodrigo Bruni to add to Emiliano Boffelli’s fifth-minute penalty.
A backs-against-the-wall performance was perhaps best exemplified by flanker Ben Earl. The back-rower produced an all-action 80 minutes, England’s energiser bunny leading the defensive effort right from the very start.
Twice in a single passage inside the first two minutes, Earl fired out of the line, lassoing the legs to catch an Argentina carrier behind the gainline. After disaster threatened to strike England with Tom Curry sent off, Earl’s role shifted slightly: England showed their smarts by using makeshift flankers, including Manu Tuilagi, on their own feed to allow their number eight to launch away from the base, while preserving a balanced scrum and full defensive backline by going with a seven-man shove with no one at the rear and Earl on the flank on Argentina’s feed.
With Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje doing plenty of heavy lifting, Earl was free to roam and cause chaos, winning a breakdown turnover during his best night in an England shirt yet as his side showed they are alive – and kicking – at this World Cup.
“It sometimes makes things easier with 14 men,” Earl explained afterwards. “It narrows your focus in terms of knowing exactly what we’re going to do.
“Steve challenges us to be the fastest-learning team in the world. We do get posed those challenges in training. We have team tactical meetings and all sorts. It’s not something we haven’t thought about. For it to come out on the pitch in the first game of the World Cup, it’s kind of like your dices landing up. It’s focused us a little bit more in terms of us working on the nuts and bolts of our game.
“Our ‘D’ [defence] has not been where we want it to be. We’ve leaked quite a lot of tries this summer. It’s proof the training’s working. You don’t win any points in the warm-up games. Now we’re buzzing.”
Beyond those two early moments, it was Earl hustling up alongside Joe Marchant when Elliot Daly’s long-range penalty fell short in the first half, forcing a hurried clearance, with Earl roaring and punching the air in celebration.
There has been plenty of attention on the 25-year-old histrionics after every minor moment won. His antics can grate, in truth, sometimes inconsequential moments in the broader in-game context met with the sort of gusto normally reserved for a last-minute winner: the flanker could be seen launching into misplaced celebration as Curry made his mistimed tackle on Juan Cruz Mallia, and in the second half clapping his hands as Argentina were awarded a scrum penalty.
But Earl, along with a couple of others in this English side, feel like they need to generate their own energy. “We’ve got a few players that like to celebrate things,” Lawes explained afterwards. “Boys celebrate things in different ways. I like to reserve my energy for other things but it lifts us. The things that really get the team going, though, are when boys step up and do the tough jobs really well.”
In Borthwick’s original planning for this tournament, Earl looked like he might be a bit-part figure. The indications coming out of camp were that Billy Vunipola would be utilised as a number eight, with Curry and Courtney Lawes his likely partners and Borthwick intrigued by the prospect of Curry and Jack Willis in partnership. But Earl’s vigour and versatility have brought him into the mix, his ability to slide from seven to eight particularly valuable after Vunipola’s ban. He is highly regarded as a link man in wide channels – though a couple of skewed kicks suggest there is work to do in that regard.
It is clear that Earl, a schoolmate of England cricketer Zak Crawley at New Beacon and Tonbridge in Kent, does not lack for confidence. Curry and Sam Underhill’s partnership at the 2019 tournament saw them dubbed the Kamikaze Kids by Eddie Jones; the headstrong Earl is cut from similarly dynamic cloth.
Provided Curry’s red card remains and a ban arrives, England will need a back-row reshuffle. Vunipola is back available for their encounter with Japan in Nice on Sunday, and his bulk will be valuable against a Brave Blossoms pack that often struggles to counter pure power.
With Lewis Ludlam impressive off the bench, up into double figures on the tackle count in just 15 minutes on the pitch, and Willis, so effective for Toulouse last season, left out of the squad entirely, Borthwick has options. But having had to bide his time for a first starting appearance for England, appearing 15 times off the bench before finally making the XV against Wales in the Twickenham warm-up, Earl appears to have cemented himself as a certainty from the off.