Steve Borthwick smiles have been as rare as a Marseille steak of late but there was no mistaking the beam in the afterglow of what could prove to be a transformative win for his tenure. The block-by-block dismantlement of Argentina was an against-the-odds job mightily well done and the relief was clear on the face of the embattled England head coach.
The audible boos from some England supporters as his name was read out ahead of kick-off at the Stade Velodrome had faded away and the sound of raucous choruses of Swing Low were ringing in his ears instead. The bouncing Pumas fans had been comprehensively drowned out by a white-shirted travelling army that had, through England’s resilience, found a reason to believe again.
The widespread prevailing pessimism had been swept away, England’s lift-shaft descent had been halted and in a fashion which at least began to vindicate Borthwick’s methods. The limited tactical straitjacket which had proved so frustrating over the summer found its perfect home against a shorthanded Argentina side that panicked at the opportunity presented to them by Tom Curry’s early red card.
Set-piece, kick/chase, swarming defence – that is the Borthwick blueprint and a man down, his team, marshalled with the wisdom of Solomon on the field by George Ford, carried it out to a tee. Will a weekly repeat be sufficient to win England the World Cup? No. They are still streets behind the best sides when it comes to creating and finishing chances.
And other opposition further down the line in this tournament will not be nearly as accommodating as Argentina if their red card habit – triggered for the third time in four Tests by Curry – strikes again. If there was an element of misfortune about this latest sending-off – just back from injury the flanker paid the penalty for desperation to make his presence felt rather than any malice – it is a continuation on a theme for England.
They know officials are being red hot on head contact in the current climate and they just have to adapt better. But every journey has to start somewhere and in Marseille, Borthwick’s England may finally have found theirs.
He has always maintained that within the squad the players have kept faith in what he is asking them to do. That cannot have been easy – especially for players from clubs who have not been exposed to his risk-averse ways before.
After a time, when the graph continues to head downwards, it is human nature to question and eventually revolt but suddenly England have something to build on. The players can look forward to Japan next Sunday – a team which has only won four Tests in four years since the last World Cup – with relish now rather than trepidation.
And as for the head coach, he can walk around with some of the weight lifted from his shoulders. The chariot still has parts to fix but it is at last back facing in the right direction.