Jack Nowell and Mako Vunipola admit their successful comebacks against Argentina were made all the sweeter by the fear their World Cup dreams had been ruined by injury.
England became the first team at Japan 2019 to book their place in the quarter-finals after the Pumas were dispatched 39-10 at Tokyo Stadium, where there were second-half appearances for Nowell and Vunipola.
Nowell had not played since starring for Exeter in last season’s Gallagher Premiership final due to ankle surgery and an operation to have his appendix removed and he celebrated his return with a superbly-taken try.
Vunipola played his first rugby since May 11 during the warm-up Test against Ireland but he lasted only 17 minutes after damaging scar tissue on the injury.
“A lot of times I thought I wouldn’t play at the World Cup,” Nowell said.
“I gave myself deadlines and if I didn’t hit them I got pretty upset with myself. I’ve been close to coming back and then I’ve hit a hurdle.
“I had my appendix out just when I thought I was back, but I’ve driven so hard to try to be involved in this World Cup.
“They were just hurdles, something I had to overcome to get myself involved again.”
England head coach Eddie Jones was determined to take Nowell to the first Asian World Cup despite knowing he would miss the opening two games against Tonga and the USA.
“Being backed by Eddie was important. I could quite easily have been sent home, but they spent a bit of time on me and to be able to give back is very nice,” Nowell said.
For Vunipola, the worst moment was the 48-hour wait to have his scan analysed after he had re-damaged his hamstring in a record win against Ireland at Twickenham.
“I had a fear that that could be it. It was touch and go and the first week was tough,” Vunipola said.
“It was more of a mental challenge than anything else. The physios and medical staff had every confidence I would be ready.
“As players you are very impatient and you want to get out there straight away and when you see the boys going so well in training and in games you want to be a part of that.
“It was about biding my time and just getting ready for whenever I got my chance.
“It was good to be back out there. I felt a bit rusty, almost felt like a deer in the headlights at times, but I’m just happy to get through it. It wasn’t easy at times, but I’m happy.”
On Saturday, England capitalised on Tomas Lavanini’s dismissal to secure their place in the quarter-finals.
The Pumas were forced to play 63 minutes with only 14 men after Lavanini was sent off by referee Nigel Owens for a high challenge in which he struck Owen Farrell’s jaw with his shoulder.
After showing early signs of using the setback to mount meaningful resistance, Argentina fell away as England attacked with width, Jonny May and Elliot Daly helping themselves to tries.
When the superb George Ford raced over shortly after half-time it was all over for the Pumas, who are effectively out of the World Cup after suffering a second defeat in Pool C.
Ford insists England have finally buried the memory of their dismal World Cup performance four years ago after claiming a quarter-final place in Japan.
“It’s a bit of a different feeling,” said Ford, who was present when defeats to Wales and Australia ushered in one of Twickenham’s darkest hours.
“It’s hard to believe that four years ago we were out of the World Cup at this stage, but we wanted to learn from that. We’ve moved on now and are in a position where we want to be four wins from four games.”
Jones and his coaching lieutenants scouted Wales’ pool victory over Australia a week ago knowing England would be paired against one of the heavyweights in the last eight.
The line-up will be determined next weekend but Ford, who was superb against Argentina as he enjoys an extended run at fly-half, refuses to look beyond France.
“No we can’t think about our quarter-final opponents, we can’t fall into that trap one bit,” the Leicester playmaker said.
“We’ve got to take each game as it comes and that’s what we’ve done so far. Three games down, we just go for the next one now which is France.
“France are a very dangerous team so we just have to prepare for the best French team next week. It’s going to be a challenging game.
“You’ve seen at this World Cup so far that the French flair when they get going – their offloading game – makes them very dangerous.”