England held off a spirited Argentina fightback to win a Rugby World Cup bronze final full of intensity and errors 26-23 on Friday for a small drop of consolation after the heartbreaking disappointment of their semi-final defeat last week.
The unerring boot of Owen Farrell proved the difference as both sides scored two tries but the England captain landed four penalties and two conversions for a tally of 16 points as Nicolas Sanchez missed a late kick for the Pumas that would have levelled the scores.
England flanker Sam Underhill, a late call up to the squad and making his tournament debut, delivered a man of the match performance, making 24 tackles. “It is a bit surreal. It’s been a great few weeks, he said.
Friday’s clash was, of course, the match neither team wanted to be playing in but both coaches said this week they were giving it the utmost respect and the physicality and commitment from the start showed that the players felt the same way.
Six weeks ago England triumphed 27-10 when the teams met in their opening group game but this was an altogether closer affair as, against a barrage of boos from the largely French crowd, Farrell got things moving with a third-minute penalty.
England then scored an excellent try as Farrell and Marcus Smith flicked quick passes for a charging Ben Earl to crash over. Farrell converted and added another penalty for a 13-0 lead.
Argentina’s attack was brought up short by too many handling errors but they did eventually string together a sharp move, albeit with what looked a clear forward pass, that finished with scrumhalf Tomas Cubelli squeezing through for a try.
Emiliano Boffelli’s conversion and an earlier penalty, and another for Farrell, meant it was 16-10 at the break.
There was an explosive start to the second half as the ever-elusive Santiago Carreras slipped through three England tackles to score under the posts.
The lead lasted less than two minutes, however, as hooker Theo Dan, who was the worst culprit for the try, got immediate revenge by charging down Carreras and picking up to score.
A Boffelli penalty closed the deficit to three and there was then a scruffy 15-minute spell as replacements poured on, kicks went astray and tackles were missed.
England then earned a scrum penalty that Farrell slotted, only for replacement Sanchez to do the same for the Pumas to set up a tense finale.
Having been overhauled by South Africa so heartbreakingly three minutes from the end of their semi-final last week on the same pitch, England found themselves facing a similar scenario as Argentina won a penalty with five minutes left. However, from far out on the left, Sanchez pulled it wide.
This time England saw out the final minutes and, though the prize was not of remotely the same magnitude, it still meant they finished the tournament with six wins from seven games and bronze medals to show for it.
“You have to be able to play rugby a few ways and we are developing that and hopefully it will keep improving,” said Farrell after England made it 12 wins in the teams’ last 13 meetings. “We want to show this team fight for every minute of the game. In a scrappy game like that, we proved that again.”
England coach Steve Borthwick added: “It wasn’t a game of incredible high quality but one of high tension. Immense credit to Argentina for the way they played and the way they have gone through this tournament. You can see both teams have progressed through it and while it wasn’t a classic of free-flowing rugby, it was a tight affair.”
Michael Cheika, whose future as Argentina coach remains uncertain, was unhappy with the officiating.
“We didn’t get the rub of the green on many things but we still stayed in the game,” he said. “I’m disappointed with the way the game was refereed and the consistency. I feel for the lads as they deserved more than what they got out of today.”