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Earl and Dan edge England to victory over Argentina in bronze final | Rugby World Cup 2023

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The last thing this sometimes bonkers, always scrappy contest for third place needed was extra time but when Argentina’s Nicolás Sánchez lined up a shot at goal with the clock running down, another 20 minutes in a match that ostensibly does not matter loomed large. As it was, Sánchez missed the kick, England survived a couple of scrums eerily close on the field to that which cost them dearly against South Africa last week and ultimately finish their World Cup as they started it – with a hard-fought win against Argentina.

These exhausted players who began preparing for the competition in June were spared the extra mile and though it was a victory that exposed England’s limitations, it was a victory nonetheless. And one that comes at the end of a difficult week given the furore surrounding Tom Curry, who enjoyed a fine 50 minutes before making way, visibly drained but head held high.

How much England have improved in between a campaign bookended by wins over the Pumas is up for debate but Steve Borthwick will be content with another narrow victory to finish on the podium when he comes to pore over the last few months and England avoided waving goodbye to some of their long-time servants, including Ben Youngs, the most capped men’s player of all time, with another agonising defeat. They had tries from Ben Earl and Theo Dan as well as 16 points from Owen Farrell and 24 tackles from the tireless Sam Underhill to thank, no one but themselves to blame for coming so close to ending up on the losing side.

Identifying the point of this “bronze final” fixture remains a task easier said than done but, if anything, it served as a reminder that these two sides are considerably short of those that contest Saturday’s final. England might have run the Springboks mightily close last week but there is a gulf in quality between the sides who lost their semi-finals and those that won them. Indeed, England struggled to get going in attack, as they have done for large parts of this tournament, and Henry Arundell endured a miserable outing.

Still, Borthwick has taken every opportunity to remind anyone listening that England were written off after a dismal warm-up campaign so finishing third has exceeded expectations. They fell short – just – against the only genuinely elite side they faced but third place is not to be sniffed at given he took the job only 10 months ago.

Only eight of the players who started England’s opening match ran out here, including Curry, who led the side out on his 50th cap. Curry has been through the mill since last weekend, to put it mildly, but Borthwick was adamant that the flanker was desperate to play amid the furore surrounding allegations he was subjected to racially abusive behaviour. He was loudly cheered by the England faithful and he acknowledged their support, too, when Farrell and co let him run out on to the pitch alone, strictly speaking to mark his half-century but an opportunity for supporters to give him their backing. His head was bandaged, his nose strapped up but his determination to get back to what he does best evident.

Borthwick also handed a 127th and final England appearance to Youngs at scrum-half, showing a rare sentimental side given the 34-year-old had previously been restricted to two appearances off the bench, but that aside it was a team picked with an eye on the future. In that regard, his back-three selection was eye-catching but Marcus Smith endured a difficult time at full-back, Freddie Steward looked out of position on the wing and Arundell barely touched the ball on the other.

Ben Youngs waves goodbye after his 127th and final appearance for England
Ben Youngs waves goodbye after his 127th and final appearance for England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Curry’s first significant intervention came after just 90 seconds, putting his banged up head where it hurts to win a penalty at the breakdown – Farrell comfortably converting for a 3-0 lead. Before the opening 10 minutes were up, England had the first try, a lovely move finished by Earl after a slick bit of interplay between the No 8 and Smith.

Argentina worked themselves a foothold in the game by targeting Smith aerially. On the first occasion he was beaten to the ball by Emiliano Boffelli, on the second Smith gathered the ball but he was penalised for holding on and the Argentina right winger got his side on the board with a penalty in front of the posts.

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Another Farrell penalty pushed England’s lead out to 13 but Earl’s try aside, they were clunky with ball in hand and were punished when Argentina’s scrum-half Tomás Cubelli finished off an excellent try after the Pumas had broken down the left. A pass in the buildup looked suspiciously forward but after a brief consultation with the TMO, the try was awarded by the referee Nic Berry.

England were behind when Santiago Carreras slipped off tackles from Dan and Ellis Genge before evading Smith to run in under the posts but Argentina’s lead lasted a matter of seconds. Dan made immediate amends by charging down Carreras’s clearing kick from the restart and dotted down.

Things were not going to plan for Arundell, who gave away a penalty eight minutes into the second half, enabling Boffelli to trim England’s lead to three. Farrell pushed England’s lead out to six again with a penalty in front of the posts but Sánchez, taking over kicking duties for Argentina, reeled them back in once more. Sánchez then missed the key kick at goal with five minutes to go and despite a frantic finish, England held on.

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