There is a bronze sculpture near the Vieux Port called Bleu de Chine. It depicts a man newly-arrived in Marseille, a case in his left hand. Much of his upper body is missing. He has no right arm and no stomach.
England fans strolled past it in the afternoon sunshine before the match on their way to lunch. Some took pictures. Until last night, they might have regarded it as a symbol of their team, a team that has played like hollow men for too long.
That all changed in the cauldron of the Stade Velodrome, though. That all changed when blindside flanker Tom Curry was sent off after just three minutes of England’s opening World Cup tie against Argentina and the Pumas scented blood.
It changed because, instead of folding, instead of disappearing, an England team that has stumbled from one mishap to another, one controversy to another, one defeat to another, in recent months, reached deep inside themselves and discovered a quite magnificent defiance.
No stomach for the fight? Nothing could have been further from the truth. Not last night anyway. If Curry’s dismissal was yet another example of their indiscipline, they reacted to it with a display of such bravery and skill and guile that it took the breath away.
George Ford played a dazzling game as England got their Rugby World Cup off with a flyer
Tom Curry was the first England player dismissed at a Rugby World Cup after an early tackle
Stand-in captain Courtney Lawes was a titan, one of several outstanding players for England
Yes, they were aided by a desperately disappointing performance from Argentina but that was partly because the Pumas seemed so taken aback by England’s refusal to bow to their setback and bow to their own recent history of mediocrity.
Instead, England stood up. And out of all the doubts and criticism that have plagued them in the build-up to this tournament, they produced what will go down as one of their most stirring performances at a World Cup.
Their hero was George Ford who destroyed Argentina with three drop goals in swift succession in the first half and, in the absence of Owen Farrell, played like the general that he so often is in club rugby but which he is rarely allowed to be with England.
Should Farrell come straight back into the side when his suspension expires after the next match against Japan next weekend? Not on this evidence. England looked smarter and more free without him. Ford looked liberated.
Ford was magnificent. He scored all 27 of England’s points. Stand-in skipper Courtney Lawes was a titan, too. So was Maro Itoje, and the entirety of the England pack. This was a victory against all odds.
It was also a victory for beleaguered England coach Steve Borthwick. Borthwick was being lampooned before this match, characterised as a weak leader who could not motivate his team. This was his moment of truth as England coach. Last night, no one could say his players did not play for him. No one could say they did not respond to his leadership.
In this cauldron of a stadium, this cauldron of a city, this teeming port that is rarely kind to the vulnerable, England stood tall. This will not change everything. This was not a match played at the same level as France’s victory over New Zealand in Paris on Friday night.
But it does mean they are likely to win Pool D. Further forward, it will send belief flooding through them for when they reach the quarter-finals against likely opponents Wales or Australia.
Curry’s yellow card was upgraded to a red card by the Bunker review early in the first half
The referee showed a yellow card to Argentina’s Santiago Carreras for a bad looking challenge
Out of uplifting nights like this, momentum can quickly build and last night felt like the kind of night that can at least be a platform for improvement.
England had got off to the worst possible start when Curry, whose return to the side had been such a source of optimism, smashed his head into Juan Cruz Mallia as Mallia took a high ball. He was shown a yellow card initially. It was soon upgraded to a red. Curry is the first England rugby union player to be sent off at a World Cup.
He also became the first England number 7 to be sent off in a World Cup game against Argentina in France since David Beckham achieved that distinction in Saint-Etienne in 1998. And the third England rugby player to be shown a red card since August. England’s talent for adding to their own woes beggared belief.
Even though Curry’s red seemed harsh, it was hard not to draw a line between it and the way England had tried to blame everyone except Farrell during the furore over the England skipper’s punishment for a dangerous tackle against Wales last month. That unwillingness to take responsibility for actions breeds consequences.
Steve Borthwick’s England side found reserves of belief and drive that few knew they held
Ford played like he was two men, and led England’s refusal to fold despite the early setback
If everyone expected England to fold after such a brutal setback, though, they were surprised. England did not fold. Aided by some sloppy play from their opponents, Borthwick’s side found reserves of belief and drive that few knew they possessed.
From the depths of despair, they mounted a stirring comeback. They played as if they had an extra man on the pitch, not one fewer. That was mainly because Ford played as if he were two men.
He led England’s refusal to submit, kicking three superb drop goals in ten minutes to put England 12-3 up. England’s pack played like lions, too. It was magnificent defiance by England when everything seemed to be unravelling and Ford seized his moment.
England never wavered after that and Argentina had no answer. And so, after a day of sweltering heat in a city where riots and conflagration have greeted visiting England football teams twice in the past 25 years, a city with an edge, a city thronged with Argentina supporters, a city that is not a comfortable place for the unprepared or the vulnerable, England finally looked like a team that had been made whole again.