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England and Argentina target perfect swansong in Rugby World Cup game nobody wants to play

England’s George Ford (left) and Jonny May (centre right) during a training session at the Stade de France (AP)
England’s George Ford (left) and Jonny May (centre right) during a training session at the Stade de France (AP)

Of the many ways that one could spend a Friday evening in Paris, competing in a third-place play-off would rank somewhere near the bottom, perhaps just above a night-time stumble into a particularly nasty section of the Seine. However much World Rugby dresses up what it insists on calling the bronze final, there is no escaping the fact that most players would, at this stage, rather be back at home with a bottle of beer, or enjoying some downtime with a verre de vin rouge in a Paris bistro.

“This is not the game you want to be playing in,” England assistant Richard Wigglesworth conceded this week. “You can be honest and say this isn’t the game that these two teams aimed to play in.

“But we could already be at home, and we’re not. If you’re asking where would you rather be, you’d rather be here participating in a World Cup.”

For England’s players, the manner of defeat to South Africa has made this week more difficult still. Steve Borthwick’s side had the game within their grasp last weekend, the pain of a defeat of fine margins clear both on Saturday night and beyond, full-back Freddie Steward almost overcome with emotion when speaking on Tuesday. Even if they will, in time, take confidence from the performance, imbued with the certainty that they can mix it with the world’s best, Friday night’s fixture will represent something of a comedown from a night when it so nearly came together for England.

Not that anyone in Borthwick’s squad is taking this as anything other than a game must be won, with the head coach and captain Owen Farrell, two men who you suspect would squabble over a game of Buckaroo, setting the tone. After a performance that so encouraged their fans in the semi-final, the last thing anyone in the England camp wants is to finish with a Friday night flop.

England have to pick themselves up after defeat to South Africa (Getty)
England have to pick themselves up after defeat to South Africa (Getty)

“You disrespect anyone who has worn an England shirt if you don’t give your best on Friday,” explained Ben Earl. “[You have to] apply yourself in exactly the way you are expected to.

“Winning would be great but it’s the performance that is the most important thing in the way we give a good account of ourselves. I think this is our 20th week together, maybe even 25th week together, so it would be a shame with all the hard work we have done as a group to let that slip in the last game. We just want to play well and show how much it means to play for England.”

Not that this is an occasion of complete insignificance. This will represent an international farewell for Ben Youngs, England’s most capped male player, after 13 years of sterling service at scrum half. It could also be it for his long-time Leicester colleague Dan Cole, a fellow centurion; Courtney Lawes has already played his final minutes in an England shirt.

England captain Owen Farrell will be keen to finish with a victory (PA Wire)
England captain Owen Farrell will be keen to finish with a victory (PA Wire)

Argentina have their own old guard potentially laying down their shields. Their record cap-holder Agustin Creevy has what seems like an Andean permanency but may decide that, at 38, this is it. The hooker could make one last cameo from the bench, where he is accompanied by another veteran and 100-capper in Nicolas Sanchez.

The opening encounter between these two feels a dim and distant memory now, partly due to this elongated tournament and partly due to how much the perception of each side has changed across the seven weeks since. No doubt, though, Argentina will be desperate to give a more accurate account of their talents after what was a slow and sloppy start to the tournament.

“It is the most important game of the year,” captain Julian Montoya emphasised. “[We are] playing for third and fourth place with this shirt, and the last game of this group because it is almost impossible for all of us to be together again.”

Argentina hooker Agustin Creevy could play his final game for the Pumas (AFP/Getty)
Argentina hooker Agustin Creevy could play his final game for the Pumas (AFP/Getty)

It will be a long while before either side is in international action again: England’s next business is a Six Nations trip to Rome; Argentina are unlikely to play before the Rugby Championship. Neither would much like to carry the feeling of back-to-back defeats with them through those fallow periods. Even if the Stade de France will give this occasion a stage it probably does not deserve, the players will find a way to enjoy their World Cup curtain call.