England sealed their place in the Rugby World Cup knockout stage with a match to spare after yet another victory marred by a controversial red card.
This time the dismissed player was Argentina’s Tomas Lavanini. Argentina had started well in the heat and humidity of Tokyo. But once the Puma lock was dismissed, England were in complete control.
They ran in six tries in a performance inspired by the here, there and everywhere style of Jonny May, with successful returns for Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell. But the big talking point came late in the first quarter when Lavanini levelled England captain Owen Farrell with a shoulder to the head.
The incident sucked the life out of the game – one that saw Billy Vunipola alarmingly limp out with an ankle injury at half-time – and though England are still a long way from hitting top gear, the performance was enough to guarantee that Eddie Jones’s side will still be in Japan when the knockout stages begin after next week’s final Pool C game with France.
After 2015’s pool-stage exit humiliation, it is the least this squad owes its fans.
There is a certain irony that two of the five red cards shown at this tournament have been produced for tackles on Farrell, when the fly-half has caused so much controversy himself for his tackling technique, to the point the England defence coach confirmed pre-tournament that the captain has been forced to change his approach in order to protect himself.
But that doesn’t protect him from what the opposition throws his way. And, for the second time in nine days, he was on the end of a red-card challenge. Lavanini will get to know Farrell much better after the World Cup as he is due to join Leicester Tigers in the Premiership. Unfortunately he will now meet his new teammates much sooner than planned.
Lavanini can have few complaints about his tackle on Farrell, particularly given that it comes a week after he was lucky to escape action for a shoulder charge on Tonga’s Sione Kalamafoni – one of his soon-to-be Leicester teammates. With his shoulder smashing into the jaw of Farrell, referee Nigel Owens made himself unequivocally clear.
"Clear foul play, clear contact with the head,” he said as he watched the replay. “I'm not seeing enough mitigation in my view to avoid a red card." And with that, Argentina had 62 daunting minutes to play with 14 men.
By that point England already had the lead. An early Benjamin Urdapilleta penalty nudged the Pumas in front and saw England handed an early warning for their ill-discipline, with three swift penalty offences coming in as many breakdowns. Their response was emphatic, and felt like it had a message behind it. Having been accused of relying on “boring” rugby by Argentina’s Agustin Creevy, England started the match with a clear intent to attack from all angles – Ben Youngs taking a tap penalty early and the trio of May, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly doing the damage.
It was that trio who brought the first try, with Daly and Watson combining on the right to send the latter away in space. As the ball came from right to left, George Ford weighted a lovely kick to the corner to allow which May chased, forcing full-back Emiliano Boffelli and wing Matias Moroni to carry into touch on the five-metre line.
It handed England the perfect platform to set-up the driving maul, and with space on the short side, Ford released May to breeze past Urdapilleta and score.
Within 10 minutes, Argentina were down to 14 and the game effectively was over – or at least it should have been.
England made hard work of their numerical advantage, not least because Farrell couldn’t buy a penalty or conversion for love nor money. Was he suffering from after-effects following the Lavanini hit? After suffering two heavy blows to the head in six days and missing kicks he’d normally have for breakfast, the window was there for the England captain to be removed for at least a head injury assessment.
Farrell would miss two more kicks before half-time, but only because England finally managed to break Argentina down. The first once again came through the back three, with two surging runs from May putting them in position to strike. After Maro Itoje was superbly held up by No 8 Javier Ortega Desio, England abandoned the pick-and-go strategy and went wide, allowing Daly to split Boffelli and Moroni to score.
The third followed just before half-time, as again a series of short-range drives provided the gap for Ben Youngs to shoot through and score. The Argentina defence up until that point had done supremely well to resist, but at 15-3 down at the break, you sensed the worst for the South Americans.
A Vunipola-less England took little time to add the bonus-point try, with Ford making the most of powerful running from Sam Underhill and Manu Tuilagi to split Boffelli and Moroni again to score in the corner, and finally, Farrell found his boots to kick the conversion, adding a 54th-minute penalty for good measure.
The Pumas threatened to make a fight of it when a lovely move saw the ball slipped through the hands of replacement fly-half Lucas Mensa, Bautista Delguy, Jeronimo de la Fuente and finally Moroni to speed over for their one and only try, but two late scores from England put the contest to bed, with Jack Nowell returning in style by bumping his way out of contact to score on his first appearance in more than four months, and Luke Cowan-Dickie adding his third try in as many matches through a driving maul.
His score ended the match – or rather one final shoving match did. It was an appropriate end to a thoroughly bad-tempered contest. England will nevertheless be pleased with their evening’s work, although they now face an anxious wait on Vunipola’s ankle injury. They need him to be fit for the France clash next week.