It may have been far from the emphatic victory that Eddie Jones called for, and if the Japan team had been to the temple to pray, as he suggested they should, it seems a divine being was paying attention. England ultimately eased to a 35-15 victory at Twickenham, but it was not without its early scares.
For the first 40 minutes, the Brave Blossoms gave England all that they could handle, and the visitors went into the break with a 15-10 lead over the hosts, dominating both possession and territory and denying England any of the control that they would have felt they could have exerted prior to kick-off.
Jones’ side grew into the game and once the 60-minute mark rolled around they began, finally, to move through the gears and take the game beyond Japan, but it was a performance which fell considerably below the pre-match billing that the Australian had given.
Nevertheless, England and Jones will have learnt a lot from an instructive 80 minutes at Twickenham and we have separated some of those lessons into some clear winners and losers from Saturday’s encounter.
Of England’s 11 changes to their starting XV, no newly-introduced player was more impactful on Saturday than Cokanasiga, a fact that was made even more impressive by the fact he was on his international debut.
His power was a new weapon in England’s arsenal out wide and though that physicality clearly shone through, it was his speed, work rate and aerial ability when chasing kicks which really caught the eye, as he won two contestable kicks back for his side. The second of these preceded his first international try, as the batted ball was collected by Jamie George, with the hooker setting Richard Wigglesworth away, before Cokanasiga recovered from his high-flying heroics to finish off the scrum-half’s break.
The Bath wing’s defensive reads, one-on-one tackles and positioning in the back field, especially when Elliot Daly broke out or was drawn to a sideline by Japan’s kicking game, was also excellent. He could not have done much more to throw his hat into the mix to play against Australia, feature in the Six Nations and be in contention for the Rugby World Cup.
Ben Moon and Kyle Sinckler
From concerns before the international window about the array of players missing at loosehead and the non-selection of Dan Cole, this duo has gone a long way to erasing worries England fans may have had about the side’s front row depth.
England had dominant scrums against South Africa and New Zealand and rarely dipped below solid parity when Moon was on the pitch, and that was again on show when he emerged from the bench against Japan. The Exeter loosehead has had to be patient in his career to date, but he has distinguished himself over the last few weeks and would be unlucky not to remain in the mix once Mako Vunipola and Ellis Genge return from injury.
As for Sinckler, the consistent critique on him has been his discipline. His scrummaging has come on significantly over the last couple of seasons and his ability in the loose is up there with the very best front rowers in world rugby, but often these strengths have been undone by silly, unforced penalties. Against Japan, he reinforced what he showed against South Africa and New Zealand, that those penalty issues are a thing of a past, yet the impact of his play in the loose remains as good, if not better, than it has ever been.
A winner by default, here, with Danny Care failing to exert the control over the game against Japan that England have enjoyed with Youngs of late. The Leicester scrum-half was in fine form against the Springboks and All Blacks, not least so because he dictated the tempo of play, without coughing up possession through turnovers.
Care brought some good tempo initially, but then started to play loosely, throwing an intercept pass from the base of the ruck, knocking on a stolen lineout inside his own try line and then a missed tackle on Michael Leitch which led to the Japan captain crossing the try line.
The dynamic of Care arriving from the bench and upping the tempo a notch or two has worked well with Youngs as the starter over the opening two weeks of internationals and this game only served to emphasise the effectiveness of that combination.
Similar to Care, this was Ford’s opportunity to show his control on the game – without the safety blanket of Owen Farrell outside in the 12 jersey – and it just didn’t pan out.
His goal-kicking was accurate, and he came up with a nice inside ball for Mark Wilson’s try, but it was not the type of ‘field general’ performance he needed to put in to stake a real claim to retain the 10 jersey that he had owned for the last couple of seasons. It was noticeable how much more cohesive and organised the back line looked, both in attack and defence, once Farrell came on at half time. As much as this is a ‘loss’ for Ford, it’s equally a win for Farrell, who will likely return to the fly-half position for the visit of Australia on Saturday.
It’s still early days in Mitchell’s tenure as England’s defence coach, but this was not an encouraging display, with Japan finding a lot of joy against the English defensive line. Furthermore, England’s ability to force turnovers and hurt Japan on the transition was also limited.
Perhaps this is a bigger indictment of the players brought in, with England going relatively well defensively against both South Africa and New Zealand in previous weeks. If that’s the case, Mitchell will still feel unhappy about the performance, as it has highlighted some defensive frailties in England’s depth options, options which they may well need come the RWC next year.
There has been a consistent theme, or criticism, during Jones’ time as England head coach that the Australian has been reluctant to trust or select a number of Exeter players. It’s partly the smaller roles for the players he does select from the club and partly the players he doesn’t select at all, such as Don Armand.
The game against Japan was an opportunity for Alec Hepburn, Harry Williams and Jack Nowell to really push forward their claims and, unfortunately, it seemed to slip through their fingers. In fairness, both Moon and Henry Slade had positive impacts off the bench, with the former, in particular, shining.
England’s scrum has struggled with Hepburn and Williams over the last few weeks and Nowell didn’t have a bad game, but equally, he didn’t put in the kind of commanding display that would’ve made Jones sit up and say he is the 13 to move forward with, or that he offers more threat on the wing than Jonny May, Anthony Watson or even the surging Cokanasiga.
Unused in South Africa this summer and then kept waiting this autumn due to a ban in the Heineken Champions Cup, this was not the audition for England that Lozowski had been hoping for. A couple of crucial missed tackles and an inability to really get his attacking game going saw the centre removed at half time, with Farrell taking on the responsibilities at 12.
It wasn’t the most fortuitous of positions to be put in, with the playmaker having been predominately used at 13 in recent times and then moved inside and thrust outside of a half-back combination that were struggling to control the game, but still, he will be disappointed with the showing that he put on. He may have to wait some time for another opportunity, with the likes of Ben Te’o and Slade likely coming back in against Australia, as well as Manu Tuilagi reportedly closer to fitness.
Watch: Ben Smith talks about New Zealand’s loss in Dublin against Ireland.
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