After a week of excuses for their loss to the Pumas, it was back to the pitch for England as they take on Japan. After waiting forever for the Smith/Farrell/Tuilagi midfield that we were promised would make England world-beaters but did very little, the trio were immediately broken up, with Guy Porter getting the start at 13, but it was his opposite number with the first action of note as he charged down Marcus Smith’s kick and looked to break downfield, only for the officials to adjudge his teammate Ryohei Yamanaka was offside, allowing Owen Farrell an easy kick off the tee to open the scoring. England’s pack were gaining early dominance, and when they won a penalty that allowed England to kick into the 22, the ball came out to the backs and Marcus Smith put Freddie Steward over for the opening score the opening try after 12 minutes. It wasn’t long until another England scrum penalty allowed them easy entry into the Japanese 2, but as England tried to play quick attacking rugby for that rare occasion under Eddie Jones, the accuracy was lacking. As the game entered the second quarter, a break by Steward on the kick counter saw Jack van Poortvliet release Joe Cokanasiga, who was stopped just short but managed to offload to Marcus Smith to score in the corner. They found themselves under pressure on the half hour mark though, as a contested lineout was recovered by Japan, which allowed them to open their account for the day with a penalty from fly half Takuya Yamasawa. And they were soon back on the attack, Michael Leith breaking out of his 22 and feeding Dylan Riley; the centre found himself isolated so kicked on and surprisingly beat Jonny May to the ball in the 22, and while the England wing successfully stopped him short of the line, he was then sent to the bin for illegally killing the ball, allowing Yamasawa another easy kick to narrow the gap. However the 15 men conceded just on the stroke of half time. A clever kick to the corner from van Poortvliet was recovered by Japan, and as the ball was played infield to create a better angle for the kicker to clear, the England chase converged to force a turnover, with the ball then being quickly spread to put Porter over, with Owen Farrell adding the extras for a 24-6 lead at the break.
The second half saw Yamasawa replaced by Seung-Sin Lee, whose early penalty attempt from long range was pushed wide as England returned to a full complement. Meanwhile, England chose to put their next penalty into the corner, and after the spread right to left failed to result in a try, the ball started coming back through the forwards and Ellis Genge crashed over for the try. Momentum was with England, and after a great counterruck from Maro Itoje created a turnover, Farrell put boot to ball and Porter won the chase for his second try. As the hour approached and both teams began using their replacements, Japan managed to steal a try as the ball came out unexpected from a ruck deep in English territory, while their next attack of note saw Farrell win the race to Dylan Riley’s grubber. And as England went to the other end of the pitch, a driving maul was brought down illegally for a penalty try, with Siosaia Fifita sent to the bin. And the hosts brought up the half century with 6 minutes remaining after Freddie Steward’s kick bounced kindly for Henry Slade to kick on (while leaving Kotaru Matsushima stranded) for Marcus Smith to cross for his second of the day, while another break from Slade just moments later ended in disappointment as his grubber kick to the corner was just too heavy for Jonny May to catch up with, leaving England 52-13 victors.
So what did England actually learn from this match? Their defence performed well against a team that likes to spread the ball, managing to keep the key players quiet for most of the match. However their attack was once again limited and unimaginative, with some questionable decisions from Marcus Smith.
Van Poortvliet showed that he should be the starter at 9 going forward, though an opportunity to get Alex Mitchell used to Test rugby was wasted as Ben Youngs was gifted another cap, while Porter’s inclusion also feels somewhat wasted when we know that Jones is focused on Manu Tuilagi joining Smith and Farrell in midfield, especially as Slade’s impressive late cameo on his 50ᵗʰ cap reminded everyone that he is likely the next up at 13 in Tuilagi’s absence.
Meanwhile the pack showed it’s dominance at the set piece, but with Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge the clear starters, would this not have been an opportunity to start Joe Heyes and a less experienced loosehead? Similarly with Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie the clear top 2 for England, was this not an opportunity for those lower in the pecking order to push their case for the third hooking spot?
Finally, while it is great to see Owen Farrell kicking 100% off the tee, is a match like this not the chance to give the kicking duties to Marcus Smith to get him used to kicking at Test level in case Farrell were to be unavailable in a key World Cup match?
This may be a solid victory for the hosts, but has it really been used effectively as Eddie Jones builds for the World Cup?
When push comes to shove…
As talented as Japan are, they are not going to compete for any tournaments any time soon, as they are just not competitive enough in the tight 5.
They may be reliable in the loose, but find themselves unable to cope with a decent pack in the scrum or the mauls, going backwards at a rate of knots or going to the floor, either of which results in a penalty for the opposition, gifting them territory and possession while forcing Japan to defend again rather than use their attacking skills.
In attack, they can mitigate this by getting the ball in and out, but the problem is in defence, where they are immediately under pressure, and their opposition know they have the dominance so will happily keep the ball in there and push on until they get the penalty.
But how will they improve at this area? Does keeping all their talent in Japan hinder them, as they don’t end up playing in the Northern Hemisphere leagues where scrummaging has become and art form? Or do they need more matches than just the World Cup, June Tests and Autumn Nations Series to face off against the best teams in the world and make playing against an elite pack the norm?