Following a 34-12 victory for England over Japan in their Rugby World Cup clash on Sunday, here’s our five takeaways from a dispapointing Pool D game in Nice.
The top line
For the second week running England cobbled a win together and with further symmetry it was effective rather than attractive, with the added benefit of a last minute bonus-point try courtesy of Joe Marchant.
Many people in rugby have often questioned what goes on in the head of England prop Joe Marler but it was his substantial cranium that created the crucial try in the second half to take England out of reach of Japan, as the ball bounced off his nut into the arms of Courtney Lawes to canter under the posts in the comedy try moment of the year.
But in the deep humidity of Nice, England toiled hard, defended brilliantly and also managed, despite handling errors, to only concede seven penalties all evening. Best of all they nilled Japan in terms of tries, the first time they’ve managed to do that to any side in an age.
It wasn’t a vintage performance and it certainly wasn’t a statement showing but it most certainly was a shuffle in the direction of the knockout stages of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Ben Earl was probably England’s third choice openside before the tournament started but in a team lacking a yard of gas his pacy displays in the back-row have seen him shoot up the pecking order. Best of all, his carrying in the wide channels rebalances what has been a far too pedestrian loose trio for far too long and he was outstanding in Nice, leading both England’s carry and metre statistics.
Elsewhere, Ollie Chessum continues to go quietly about his work offering a big physical presence in carry and also shoring up the tighthead lock side of the scrummage, whilst Freddie Steward again showed why he’s so highly rated within the England camp.
The bench upped the ante too, with Marcus Smith really changing up the momentum of the game and creating a lot of issues for the tiring Japanese defence and Theo Dan also contributing well in the loose.
With George Ford demonstrating superb skills to turn himself round and use his weaker left foot to send Steward over in the corner there was a lot to like about England in the second half, even despite an underwhelming effort in the first.
Judging on the first-half action if these two teams ran an unopposed training drill that asked them to pass the ball along an attacking line then pound to a penny one of the players would knock the ball on.
Japan were just as bad as England in handling errors and to watch the comedy of errors that took place on their try-line that allowed Lewis Ludlam to crash over from short range for England’s first try of the 2023 Rugby World Cup was almost painful.
In the first half alone, England managed 43 carries yet broke the Japanese line precisely once, a lamentable statistic, and one made worse when you look at the 12 handling errors Borthwick’s men made in that period.
Rugby is a simple game and you can’t construct an attacking game plan if you keep dropping the ball in low pressure situations and England’s handling was utterly woeful at times, especially for those coming off watching the brilliance of Fiji’s ball skills in the match that preceded this.
To their credit, Japan put a lot of emphasis on double team tackling on England’s big carriers, particularly focusing on Manu Tuilagi, making sure that the times that he crashed the ball up were few and far between. With incredible speed to self-recycle themselves back into the line, their efforts would have pleased England’s former defence coach, John Mitchell, now plying his trade with the Brave Blossoms before he takes up his role as head coach of the Red Roses.
England have more to give than we’re currently seeing and they showed in the second half that they are starting to come together. Ford commented post-match that they wanted to keep it tight in the early exchanges – but that still doesn’t explain the legion of aimless kicking from promising positions that England indulge in. If they’re to progress against the better ranked sides in the tournament they really do need to find some early cohesion in their backline work.
The lineout rather surprisingly stuttered at times too, often looking overcomplicated, and Japan picked off three clear steals in crucial situations. When you’re playing Lawes at six and have three world class options, there really is no excuse for some of the inaccuracy we witnessed in this game.
But whilst those are the obvious work-ons, the defence and scrum were as solid as a rock, with Kevin Sinfield’s system, one that is based upon work-rate, self-recycle and fitness, starting to pay dividends.
But most of all, England’s biggest work-on at the start of the tournament was winning – and against all the odds, somehow they’re working out a way to get results and that’s to both their and the coaching team’s credit.
England face Chile next week, with Owen Farrell available. This is a chance to get the skipper some game time and also to hone the attack. Wholesale changes should not be made and England need to take a note of Andy Farrell’s selection policy, which is playing his best combinations as often as possible.
They’ll take momentum and confidence into the Chile match, remembering their second half moments over their first half errors and finally, they look as if they’re on an upward curve and to many people’s surprise, they are now top of Pool D.
Japan play Samoa on September 28 in Toulouse, knowing they need at least a win to progress through to the quarter-final stage as they did in 2019. This team looks a little leg heavy and aging compared to the class of 2019, and lack the power down the middle to take good teams apart, but with some talented backs and a decent set-piece they may very well believe they can do a job against Samoa in a fortnight.
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