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Five England takeaways: Backing Jack, samurai Faz and 'elbows down'

By Liam Heagney
England's Jack van Poortvliet (Photo by Alex Davidson/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

England got their autumn show back on the road with Saturday’s 52-13 win over Japan six days after the excruciating 29-30 loss to Argentina. It’s left Eddie Jones in chipper form in the aftermath, issuing a “we’re going to after them ”warning to the All Blacks who are next on the November dance card at Twickenham next Saturday.


You can be sure there will be plenty more verbals in the lead-up to that first collision between the teams since the 2019 World Cup semi-finals, but the rule first needs to be run over what unfolded against the Japanese to assess where it has left England at the halfway stage of their four-match series. Here are five Twickenham takeaways to munch over:

Back Jack and not predictable Ben
Unlike next Saturday when Twickenham will become a corporate fan jolly for the arrival of the All Blacks, the second game of the Autumn Nations Series with Japan had the grassroots fans who talk a really good game out in force. One such important conversation, as overheard pre-game on a train from Clapham Junction to Twickenham, concerned the identity of the England No9 and the accusation that Jones’ team “hadn’t played quick rugby in for a very, very long time”.

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No disrespect to the seasoned Ben Youngs, who is an absolute gent and a fabulous ambassador for the sport, but if Jones is serious about developing the England attack and having it pristine for the World Cup, then the five-cap Jack van Poortvliet must start against New Zealand and not his 119-cap Leicester colleague.

What the past two matches have shown is that newcomer van Poortvliet offers variety compared to the more predictable Youngs. Across his 90 minutes against the Japanese and Argentina, the 21-year-old made 14 kicks, four carries, two linebreaks, four tackle breaks, 60 passes, one offload, four successful tackles and conceded just one penalty. There was also that excellent try scored last weekend, and his all-round effort on Saturday helped Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell to generally combine with more authority.


In contrast, the stats for the 33-year-old Youngs’ 70 minutes over the two games were eight kicks, zero carries, zero linebreaks, zero tackle breaks, 71 passes, zero offloads, two successful tackles, one penalty conceded and one turnover conceded.


Farrell’s samurai sword
There was a bit of a fuss at the post-game rendezvous with one UK journalist making a big deal over Farrell getting presented with a samurai sword. The thing is if he was up to speed on Japanese rugby he would have known it was nothing unprecedented, that Jamie Joseph’s side have long been in the habit of making this lovely gesture towards the opposing team’s captain.

The visiting coach was asked to explain its significance. “When I was playing rugby you used to give a tie and a pin to the ref so the Japanese side decided it is something we present to our players and we thought it would be quite a nice gesture to present it to the captain of our opposing team, so that had become a bit of a tradition the last couple of years since I have been coaching the team.

“It has been really appreciated because it is a little bit unique, a little bit different and it’s got the game, a special memento for the captain. That’s pretty much it really. It’s better than a tie and a pin.”

Asked if he had ever been given that type of memento, Farrell said: “No, I’ve not.” He had no idea either what he was going to do with it. “I don’t know to be honest. I’ve just got it. I’ve no idea.”


Incredibly contrasting two-game stats
Rugby statistics can be an ass at times. Look at how England lost a game to Argentina despite having 63 per cent possession and 73 per cent territory, yet they were able to run away with the win over Japan even though they were limited to just 45 per cent possession and 47 per cent territory.

Of more relevance was what England sought to do on Saturday with the ball, kicking it more than against the Pumas (37 to 24), carrying it less (68 compared to 110), and making way fewer passes (100 against 164). Those numbers highlighted how clinical England were in game two of the series in contrast to their laboured effort six days previous.

The most extraordinary statistic, however, was that England had to make 160 tackles against the constantly ball-shifting Japan compared to just 42 against the conservative Pumas. That meant the back row chipped in massive tackle counts – Tom Curry with 24, Sam Simmonds 18 and Maro Itoje 17, with tighthead Kyle Sinckler on 15. That’s exhaustive in any player’s language.


Elbow’s down and a Nice rematch
Ten months from now, England will have to again go through what they have just done in this Autumn Nations Series, play Argentina and Japan on consecutive weekends at the World Cup in France. Except with one major difference. Whereas there was just a six-day turnaround between the recent Twickenham games, an eight-day gap awaits between the upcoming matches in Marseille and Nice.

What will intrigue in the coming weekends is how the front-line England players cope with the workload as the games against the All Blacks and the Springboks will likely see most of them finish this month off by featuring in all four fixtures in the series. That’s an onerous toll.

That won’t happen in France as the third pool game versus minnows Chile in Lille affords ample opportunity for Jones to provide starts to his remaining squad players before the intensity ratchets back up with the pool closer against Samoa, again in Lille.

The Japanese believe the more neutral crowd in Nice and an improved scrum can be a great leveller next September, with Joseph hoping tighthead Jiwon Loo won’t be debating “elbow’s down” and regularly penalised by whoever the referee is unlike what happened in the first half in Saturday with Kiwi ref James Doleman.

“I guess it all starts back at the set-piece. There is no sort of magic conversation to fix the set-piece. We were playing a very experienced forward pack that put us under a lot of pressure and we need to be able to deal with that. Last week when we played the All Blacks we dealt with it good and this week we didn’t. When you don’t it’s very, very hard you get into the game.” Too right.

Finishers and their finishing
England boss Jones loves the description ‘finishers’. So attached to it is he that the RFU teamsheet always comes with the eight reserves named as finishers rather than just plain old replacements. With it comes plenty of suggestions that the sport at Test level is now unequivocally a 23-man game – except it really always isn’t.

When the pressure came on versus Argentina, Jones decided to only use six of his potential alterations, leaving forwards Jack Singleton and Dave Ribbans rooted unused to the bench, a tactic that undermined England’s Springboks-like six/two forwards/back bomb squad split for that match.

With the result not in jeopardy, Jones had all his bench cleared by the 66th minute this weekend, Joe Heyes the last of the eight to arrive from the reconfigured five/three split.

The general idea is that these changes are supposed to bring renewed energy with subs shining in their limited time but the impact was hit and miss on Saturday, something that requires a ponder as England needs its entire bench to be relied on to do a more reliable job.

Take the likes of Mako Vunipola, he won’t want to be reminded of what woundingly happened at his first scrum, a penalty awarded against him, while the Billy Vunipola carry got choked in the traffic at a time when increased late-game space should have been available to exploit.

At least Henry Slade, who had watched Guy Porter score twice in the No13 jersey that had long been the Exeter midfielder’s property, played like a man with a major point to prove. Aside from his booted assist for the second Smith try, his bust from a Farrell offload was especially pleasing and highlighted what the England bench must collectively show more of when used.


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