The comeback was no surprise, but it was still a sweet step for an England squad which has been pushed to believe it can become world champion ever since Eddie Jones took over as coach in 2016. "We're exactly where we want to be," Jones, an Australian, said Saturday. "Three games and (a maximum) 15 points, we're pretty happy."
The quarterfinal berth was clinched after England beat Argentina 39-10 at Tokyo Stadium, six tries to one. But really it was clinched in the 18th minute when Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini was sent off.
"It was fair," Argentina coach Mario Ledesma said with obvious disappointment. In a week in which three others have been red-carded for dangerous tackles, Lavanini inexplicably led with his left shoulder into the neck of England flyhalf Owen Farrell. Lavanini became the second Puma to be sent off in the Rugby World Cup after Pedro Sporleder in 1991.
The "war" they promised to give England to stay in the quarterfinals hunt turned into a fighting retreat, and Argentina's earliest exit from a Rugby World Cup in 16 years will become official on Sunday should France beat Tonga in Kumamoto, as expected.
England and old rival France will meet next weekend to decide the winner of Pool C. By then, Argentina will be home, as it finishes its pool campaign on Wednesday against the winless United States. Until the red card, the match was on edge. Both teams had just come from a midfield melee after Farrell was late-tackled by Argentina captain Pablo Matera. Then Lavanini hit Farrell in the jaw, earning the second red card of his career, beside five yellows, making him the most carded Argentine in test history.
The villain's departure also sucked all the tension out of the contest. Moments later, when Manu Tuilagi tackled Argentina's Emiliano Boffelli in the air, Argentine fans whistled for a card, but referee Nigel Owens just gave a penalty for "a timing issue," and the fans sat back as their team was suffocated by England's ball control.
Argentina's pride delayed England's next points until the end of the first half. When the forwards couldn't pound the ball in, backs Elliot Daly and Ben Youngs scored to make it 15-3 at halftime. Farrell, who suffered whiplash from Lavanini, said a head injury assessment wasn't needed, though he missed converting all three tries and a penalty in the first half. But he found his range in the second half and converted all three tries.
The Pumas had to make 97 tiring tackles in the first half, and fresh legs in the second helped them sustain their best period, and a fine try for Matias Moroni from an intricate set move off a lineout.
But England exploited the tiring Argentines out wide with tries for Ford, Jack Nowell, and replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, whose third try in three matches made him England's leading try-scorer.
Until then, Jones had been wary. He'd seen his side, down 14 men after Daly was red-carded in the fourth minute, overcome Argentina at Twickenham in 2016 in his first year in charge. But with the win and bonus point secured with three tries in 10 minutes around halftime, Jones gave the first action in months to Nowell, who damaged knee and ankle ligaments in June and needed emergency appendix surgery in August during their Italian camp; center Henry Slade after a knee injury; and prop Mako Vunipola, who had played 17 minutes in nearly five months because of a hamstring injury.
But Mako's brother, No. 8 Billy Vunipola, had to come off at halftime after twisting his ankle. His injury, minor according to Jones, was the only negative in the match for England. "Now we can worry about France," the coach said.
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