Fly-half Ford booted all of England’s points and piloted his team so well around the Stade Velodrome that Steve Borthwick’s side coped comfortably with Tom Curry’s red card less than three minutes in.
Curry had a yellow card upgraded to red for head-on-head contact with Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia, but England delivered a performance of power and poise to suffocate the dangerous Pumas.
Sale star Ford pinged three drop goals in seven first-half minutes, in a blitz that ultimately ended Argentina’s argument. The 30-year-old delivered an emphatic impression of South Africa’s Jannie de Beer, who blasted a World Cup record five drop goals when the Springboks defeated England 44-21 in the 1999 quarter-final.
England went back to the future for their gameplan in France’s second city, all high bombs and punts to the corner. When the Red Rose men did try to attack with width, again their approach came undone.
But all the rustiness and error-strewn performances of August washed away amid a muscular Marseille masterclass in bludgeon-first rugby. Ford ended a remarkable night with six penalties and those three drop goals that entirely destroyed Michael Cheika’s Argentina.
When De Beer was booting that record five drop goals for South Africa in 1999, Ollie Chessum, Freddie Steward, George Martin and Theo Dan had not even been born.
Marcus Smith and Ollie Lawrence were no more than newborn babies, while Westlife were number one in the UK with Flying Without Wings.
England were in freefall without an airfoil just last month amid three defeats in four warm-up matches, but now Borthwick’s men are soaring back towards the southern France sun.
Borthwick’s men can now look forward to a quarter-final, provided they can sustain this standard. Beat Japan in Nice next weekend and Pool D will be theirs for the taking.
England still cannot decipher the riddle that is backline attacking, but who cares when you can power into position to ping home repeated three-pointers.
England’s try-scoring prowess remains broken, but right now, there is simply no need to fix it. Captain Owen Farrell will be available again for the third pool stage match, against Chile. On this evidence however, Ford must stay in the pocket at 10.
Captain Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje and Ben Earl were all exceptional, to add to Ford’s match-winning turn. England’s scrum was rock solid and the lineout was back to its towering best.
England’s night began in disaster. Curry clanged heads with Mallia just two minutes in, and was sent to the sin-bin for his troubles. When his card was later upgraded to red by the bunker review, England’s tough assignment turned into a nightmare brief.
Emiliano Boffelli banged over a long-range penalty to steal the 3-0 lead for the Pumas and put England on the rack. The Argentina wing missed with another goal shot however, and then Cheika’s men lost Santiago Carreras to a needless yellow card.
The Gloucester fly-half opted not to pull out of a charge down and clattered Ford. He was perhaps fortunate to avoid seeing red himself. Ford quickly levelled with a penalty of his own, but then came the confirmation of Curry’s red.
England finally put some phase play together – only for Elliot Daly to produce a curious grubber kick. With men around him and space on the edge of the 22, this was nothing but profligate.
Argentina then also wasted their best platform of the half, eschewing a shot at goal for a tap penalty – only to be turned over by a monster Lawes steal.
But then came England’s drop-goal moments. Ford delivered three sumptuous efforts from the pocket in just those seven minutes.
Daly even had time to miss a long-range penalty shot amid Ford’s barrage, but in a flash, England were 12-3 up and somehow out of danger.
Santiago Carreras missed a snap drop-goal shot of his own amid the maelstrom, and England even managed to butcher a five-on-two overlap on the edge of the Argentina 22.
Borthwick’s men were still 12-3 up though, and took that advantage into half-time. England continued their aerial assault after the break, and Ford continued his flawless kicking for goal, too.
The Sale star booted three more penalties in the third quarter, to put England effectively out of sight at 21-3 on the hour. Daly missed a second long-range shot at goal as England looked to turn the screw still further.
Ford added two more penalties as England obliterated Argentina’s challenge, most notably at the breakdown. Rodrigo Bruni claimed a consolation score at the death for Argentina, meaning the Pumas grabbed the sole try of the night.
Boffelli converted to gloss the scoreline, but England were out of sight – and already plotting their route to the knockout stages.