Having relieved the pressure with the win over the Springboks and earned validation for their testing 2018 in the box office encounter with the All Blacks, England and Eddie Jones now turn their attention towards Japan.
The visit of Jones’ former side to Twickenham marks a first for the Cherry Blossoms, who have only previously met England once, in Sydney at the 1987 Rugby World Cup. The score that day was 60-7 to England and though Japan are a much-improved side since the inaugural RWC, there will be similar expectations on England to dominate the contest both on the pitch and on the scoreboard.
Without disrespecting Japan or their ability to cause the best sides in the world problems on their day, England boast resources and a player pool that Japan can only dream of at this point in their rugby development and, as such, it provides England with an opportunity.
The games against South Africa, New Zealand and the final contest of the month against Australia were always going to be the games that England judged their progress by this year, not to mention their readiness for the upcoming RWC. England don’t need to relieve pressure or seek validation against Japan, what they really need are answers.
Answers to questions which have thus far gone unanswered during Jones’ tenure.
The Australian cannot afford to make wholesale changes to his team, as he will be keen to maintain the chemistry and cohesion the side have been building before the visit of his countrymen on November 24th, but equally, he cannot, or rather should not, send the same side out against Japan. If there was one fatal flaw to England’s successful 2016, it was that their depth was not developed, and the same players were consistently selected. It made for short-term success and long-term growing pains.
The visit of Japan offers Jones the opportunity to try out some new combinations, without ripping up the entire script, and still target an impressive performance and a confidence-boosting result.
Up front, Ben Moon and Kyle Sinckler showed real promise as a pairing against New Zealand, but the lack of accuracy in the England lineout once Dylan Hartley departed the pitch will have been a major concern for Steve Borthwick, England’s forwards coach. A start for George against Japan gives him the chance to put the second half horror show against the All Blacks behind him, not to mention put down a marker as to why he should be considered a starter moving forward.
Depending on how much Jones is willing to change, Courtney Lawes and Charlie Ewels could be brought into the XV for an opportunity, but a desire to maintain a core to his side ahead of the Australia game could see Maro Itoje and George Kruis retained. Their retention would also be beneficial to George, who will have two familiar targets at the lineout.
With Tom Curry sidelined, the game presents another chance to see Sam Underhill prove his worth in the seven jersey after an exemplary showing against New Zealand, whilst both Brad Shields and Mark Wilson seem to be growing into the England jersey. Pairing one of that duo with Underhill on the flanks would see England continue to grow chemistry and experience in a back row bereft of both Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw.
This creates an opening for Zach Mercer at number eight, after his impressive cameo from the bench against South Africa. Given Vunipola’s injury-riddled couple of years, finding a genuine alternative at the position should be a key priority for Jones. Wilson has coped admirably with the expectations in his two games there, but he hasn’t provided the same ability to get over the gain-line that Vunipola does.
Mercer is not a like-for-like replacement for Vunipola, but he finds ways to get over the gain-line, despite lacking the bulk to match Vunipola’s direct approach. Whether it’s shifting the point of contact, using his underrated fend or timing his runs so that he rarely ever takes the ball static, the Bath back rower gets the sides he plays in moving forward. Throw in his potential as a lineout jumper and a contributor at the breakdown and he is a player Jones could be well-served by knowing better ahead of the RWC.
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Watch: Eddie Jones reacts to England’s narrow loss to New Zealand.
Ben Youngs has been in superb form over the opening two weeks of the November internationals and Owen Farrell is being entrusted with the keys to the back line, so continue with the pairing and keep them on the same page ahead of Australia. Consistency at the half-back pairing is also going to help a new midfield combination fit into their roles.
It’s not been the smoothest ride for Ben Te’o and Henry Slade over the past two weeks, though with noticeable moments of promise, and this could be an opportunity for Alex Lozowski and Manu Tuilagi to lay down the gauntlet to the pair, as well as to Jonathan Joseph, who should be back in the mix by the time the Six Nations rolls around.
Lozowski has now completed his four-week ban from the Heineken Champions Cup and Tuilagi, who was not quite at 100% ahead of the All Blacks test, should be fully fit. Both players have been in fine form at club level and clearly have skill sets that could offer a lot at international level. They bring impressive lateral mobility in the defensive line and an ability to straighten play as ball-carriers, whilst primarily looking for the space between defenders.
In order to keep some consistency in the spine of the team, it makes sense to retain Daly at 15. He looked significantly more comfortable with his positioning and contesting the aerial balls against New Zealand, despite the torrential conditions at Twickenham, than he did the in the series opener against South Africa. With Daly playing 13 more often than not for Wasps at the moment, any opportunity to keep him in the 15 jersey is key for England’s hopes for him at the position, particularly with Anthony Watson out injured.
As for the wings, another game back in the saddle for Chris Ashton would help his reintegration into the team after an impressive return against New Zealand. Jonny May has been in scintillating form and one of England’s most consistent performers of late, so this should not be considered a critique of him, but a debut for Joe Cokanasiga is too tempting to pass up.
May could and should return against Australia, but Cokanasiga offers a physical presence and eagerness to keep phases alive that just doesn’t exist in England’s other current wing options. Finding out how he goes at international level and how he gels with the other players in the senior set-up is exactly what a game like Saturday’s can offer to England moving forward.
This would bring five fresh players into the XV and whilst that wouldn’t be without its risks to continuity, all five have been involved either in the matchday 23 over the last two weeks, or in the larger training squad.
If England can emerge from Saturday’s contest with a convincing win and more answers than questions about George, Mercer, Lozowski, Tuilagi and Cokanasiga, then their Test with Japan will have been a complete success.
Suggested XV: Ben Moon, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Mark Wilson, Sam Underhill, Zach Mercer; Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell; Joe Cokanasiga, Alex Lozowski, Manu Tuilagi, Chris Ashton, Elliot Daly.
Watch: Highlights of England’s game against New Zealand.
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