|Tries: Cubelli, Carreras Pens: Boffelli 2, Sanchez; Cons: Boffelli 2|
|Tries: Earl, Dan Pens: Farrell 4; Cons: Farrell 2|
England completed their Rugby World Cup campaign with a victory as they narrowly overcame a proud Argentina performance in the third-place play-off in Paris.
Ben Earl slid over as England shot out to an early 13-0 lead, but Argentina clawed their way back and were briefly ahead through Tomas Cubelli and Santiago Carreras tries, before England’s Theo Dan charged down a kick and crossed.
Owen Farrell’s boot kept England’s noses in front as he exchanged penalties with Nicolas Sanchez in a nervy finale.
Backed by a believing crowd, Argentina launched a late assault on England’s line but Sanchez pushed a penalty to tie the scores wide, allowing Steve Borthwick’s side to finish France 2023 with a win.
After seeming set to stroll to victory early on, there was heartfelt relief among England’s players as the final whistle blew.
It means England’s campaign ends as it began. Seven weeks ago, they overcame the Pumas 27-10 in the heat of Marseille.
Three minutes into that game, facing 77 minutes without the sent-off Tom Curry and with five defeats in their previous six games behind them, things looked grim for England.
But they ground their way to victory on that occasion to kick-start a campaign that came within three minutes and one point of beating South Africa in the semi-finals to make Saturday’s showpiece.
Several of England’s young guns pressed their cases for future inclusion in a game free of knockout pressure, but higher on quality than the teams’ previous meeting.
Hooker Dan impressed with his energy and appetite for work, while Marcus Smith was enterprising and incisive in attack, even if not all of his ideas paid off.
There had been speculation that Henry Arundell, the scorer of five tries in the pool-stage thrashing of Chile, might challenge the national record of six tries in a single World Cup, achieved by Chris Ashton in 2011, or even rival this edition’s top-scorer Will Jordan, who has crossed eight times in total.
However, he did not touch the ball once in the first half and gave away a penalty with a duff kick when afforded space for the first time in the second.
England dragged into dogfight
They may have finished the game under strain, but England started it in style. Curry led his team out in honour of his 50th cap and, after a difficult week dominated by his accusation of receiving a racial slur in the semi-final defeat by South Africa, he set the tone from the first whistle.
The 25-year-old clamped down over a second-minute breakdown to force a penalty which Farrell had no problem converting into three points.
Earl, another of England’s star performers during the campaign, crossed for the first try on eight minutes, picking a delicious line off Smith to beat the drift defence after good work from hooker Dan.
When Farrell slotted another penalty to make it 13-0 after as many minutes, it seemed the same tame Pumas who had turned up for their semi-final against New Zealand may have returned to the Stade de France.
But, buoyed by a local crowd who sang Allez les Bleus in honour of their change strip, Argentina belatedly found some fight.
After calling for a scrum from a penalty within range and being sent into reverse at the set-piece, Emiliano Boffelli wisely opted to take the points from the next similar chance.
Scrum-half Cubelli darted through a thicket of legs from close range just before half-time to trim England’s lead to six points.
The second half began with a quickfire exchange of converted tries, with Dan at the centre of the action at both ends.
The England hooker was brushed aside by Carreras as the Argentina fly-half showed the pace that earned him a place on the wing for Gloucester in previous seasons.
Two minutes later though, Carreras dallied over a clearing kick to allow Dan to charge down, gather up and take revenge and restore England’s advantage at 23-17.
Argentina sensed England were still wobbling however and a Boffelli penalty made it a three-point game.
Earl came up with a crucial turnover deep in his own territory that left Argentina’s coach Michael Cheika thumping the coaching box furniture in frustration at referee Nic Berry’s officiating of the breakdown.
Cheika was similarly unimpressed with the referee’s awarding of a scrum penalty against his side which Farrell gladly booted over for 26-20 lead.
Sanchez pegged England back once more, but when his side were awarded a 75th-minute penalty wide out, just outside the England 22m line, he opted for posts – and a shot at tying the game – rather than a kick to the corner and chase a match-winning try.
It was a decision that he may have regretted as his kick stayed wide of the stick and the touch judges’ flags stayed by their sides.
There was still time for Argentina to get English hearts fluttering in the stands. Juan Martin Gonzalez cantered into space down one wing, before George Ford bravely stopped a rampaging Mateo Carreras down the other.
It is the first time England – winners in 2003 and runners-up in 1991, 2007 and 2019 – have occupied third place in the Rugby World Cup.
England’s only previous appearance in the bronze-medal match – against France in 1995 – ended in a 19-9 defeat.
It ensures England’s most-capped male player Ben Youngs bows out with a medal after 127 Tests, even if it was not the colour he would have wanted before the tournament.
What they said
England head coach Steve Borthwick: “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.”
England scrum-half Ben Youngs after playing his final Test match: “The game has given me so much. I have got huge friendships and bonds not just in this England team, but people I have played against for years.
“I have a bucketload of memories and am very grateful, so thank you everyone. I will have a beer and enjoy myself with the boys tonight.”
Argentina head coach Michael Cheika: “We didn’t get the rub of the green on many things but we still stayed in the game. 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.”
England: Smith; Steward, Marchant, Tuilagi, Arundell; Farrell (capt), Youngs; Genge, Dan, Stuart, Itoje, Chessum, Curry, Underhill, Earl.
Replacements: Ford for Tuilagi (56), Lawrence for Arundell (66), Care for Youngs (51), Rodd for Genge (50), George for Dan (54), Cole for Stuart (50), Ribbans for Chessum (70), Ludlam for Curry (50).
Argentina: Mallia; Boffelli, Cinti, De la Fuente, M Carreras; S Carreras, Cubelli; Gallo, Montoya (capt), Kodela, Pagadizabal, Rubiolo, Gonzalez, Kremer, Isa.
Replacements: Moroni for Cinti Luna (47), Sanchez for S. Carreras (56), Velez for Cubelli (51), Sclavi for Gallo (66), Creevy for Montoya (56), Bello for Gomez Kodela (61), Alemanno for Rubiolo (66), Bruni for Isa (47).
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistants: Andrew Brace (Ireland) and Nika Amashukeli (Georgia)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)