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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England were laboured, hyper-pragmatic and damn lucky to break Japan’s resistance.'

Mick Cleary: 'England were laboured, hyper-pragmatic and damn lucky to break Japan’s resistance.'
8 months ago

The Brave Blossoms hold a particular place in my heart, that little space that twitched violently eight years ago when they came off the canvas at what we locals call the Amex to defeat the mighty Springboks. The fact that I almost went into cardiac arrest at the moment that Karne Hesketh dived over to tee up an extraordinary victory was due to my insistence that I cover the match for The Telegraph on the wholly objective basis that I wanted to be able to be able to cycle to a game for the only time in my career and then stop off for a pint on the  way home. I was expecting to be asked only for 400 words on what would be a routine, very straightforward South Africa victory. “Whaddya mean? A 1000 words. To be filed on the final whistle? Are you mad? It’ll be a boring game as (at odds of 500-1) Japan haven’t got a chance. The report will be little more than a list of Springbok scorers.”

And so the ticker went into overdrive and a famous World Cup moment entered into the history books.

There was never any real chance of a Nice Miracle on Sunday night. Japan have laboured this past four years to get themselves anywhere near the exhilarating standard of 2019 when they staged a fabulous World Cup and thrilled the pants of everyone with their brand of rugby, enough to see off Ireland and Scotland as well as cause the eventual winners, South Africa, a few furrows in the brow in the quarter-final.

Joe Marchant
Joe Marchant wrapped up the bonus point win with the last play of the match (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

That’s the sort of context that needs to be applied when evaluating England’s 34-12 victory. There wasn’t much against them. Steve Borthwick’s men got the win and with Joe Marchant’s try in the dying seconds also managed to secure a bonus point into the bargain. England top Pool D and with games to come against Chile and Samoa with a two week rest period between those fixtures, they are sitting pretty as far as their projected route into the knockout stages looks. Given the shambles of their warm-up programme (as well as their Six Nations campaign) this is, to be fair, some sort of an achievement.

Why then is there little sense of uplift and confidence about their prospects? Are we on the sidelines being curmudgeons, doom-sayers by inclination, unable to give a man such as Borthwick a decent break?  Yeah, factor in a little bit of that but no more than a little.

Surely even England’s most ardent supporter would find it hard to enjoy the manner in which the team is playing?

Surely even England’s most ardent supporter would find it hard to enjoy the manner in which the team is playing? A mother will always clutch her loved one to her bosom and defend the offspring against the world but when you see the smooth-running talent that is an Elliot Daly arc his way on to the ball midway through the second-half and threaten the Japanese defence only to slither-kick the ball into the 22 and out into touch your heart sinks.

It was that kind of evening. England were laboured, hyper-pragmatic and damn lucky to break Japan’s resistance. It took an Evan Ferguson-type flick-on header from Seagulls’ fan, Joe Marler, for a try-assist to Courtney Lawes’ bizarre touchdown score in the 55th minute. It was a fluke but it was enough to break the log-jam on the scoreboard (13-12 at the time) and wrest the game England’s way.

Jamie George
Jamie George debriefs the England side after a laboured win over Japan in humid conditions (Photo by VALERY HACHE/Getty Images)

You make your own luck? To a certain extent, yes, and you’ve got to be in position to profit from a lucky bounce on the bonce. But where was the fluency, the guile and cleverness that we saw from Ireland for example, the willingness to make things happen rather than hope that pressure will eventually breach the opposition damn? Nowhere to be seen. Hoof, hoof, hoof. The kicks might as well have been planted in our solar plexus for it took the wind out of the sails of those watching.

England do not have that capacity to strike any semblance of apprehension into the elite teams. There is no aura about them, not even as a dedicated forward pack of bruisers intent on softening up the oppo before striking hard across the back-line as the Springboks do. Perhaps we expect too much given where England have been over the last six months. For now, you have to cut them a bit of slack as most pre-tournament forecasts had them struggling to even qualify from the group. At least Borthwick returns to base camp in Le Touquet he does not have the angst and anxiety that will be the daily companion of his former boss, Eddie Jones.

It would be taking a risk to break up that partnership to accommodate Farrell. There is no need of his in-match leadership skills, either, given the manner in which Lawes does the job – understated but effective.

Even if England do not make the soul sing or put a spring in the step as you approach either the stadium or the TV remote, there are one or two positive things to note. Ben Earl again showed that he offers plenty round the park, as an intelligent link player as well as an industrious figure in the loose. England are not without options in the back-row. Will we finally get to see Jack Willis perform this week against Chile? Either way, Earl is right there in contention for a match-day squad role.

Once again, George Ford, looked the part as England’s orchestrator. It is nigh on certain that Owen Farrell will play a full part against Chile, if for no other reason than to get game time into his legs and lungs. The Samoa selection will be much more revealing. Ford has to stay at No 10 but given the understanding building between Marchant and Manu Tuilagi in the centre, it would be taking a risk to break up that partnership to accommodate Farrell. There is no need of his in-match leadership skills, either, given the manner in which Lawes does the job – understated but effective.

Ben Earl
Ben Earl has been one of England’s better players and pressed his case for a place in the starting line-up, even if Tom Curry returns (Photo NICOLAS TUCAT/Getty)

Farrell, of course, has an enormous role to play off-field as a captain and given the naturally selfless nature of his personality that presence will still be felt over the next few weeks no matter how selection pans out.

At the moment, watching England is very much like a Monday morning commute to work. Head down, trudge, trudge, trudge – get the job done.

Where else to find solace for England? In the rumbustious figure of Lewis Ludlam, a whole-hearted player if ever there was one. There was some heft provided by Ellis Genge when he came on but the overriding impression was one of deflation. You might take comfort in the scoreboard if you were an England fan but surely there has to be more to the whole experience than chiselling a result? It’s not as if Japan had the spice and creative energy even of a Portugal or Uruguay. They did not.

At the moment, watching England is very much like a Monday morning commute to work. Head down, trudge, trudge, trudge – get the job done.

Comments

9 Comments
K
Kenward K. 269 days ago

This essay reminds me of a brilliant essay by the 'football philosopher,' Jorge Valdano, and can equally be applied to the great game of rugby union here in England:

'Football is made up of subjective feeling, of suggestion - and, in that, Anfield is unbeatable. Put a shit hanging from a stick in the middle of this passionate, crazy stadium and there are people who will tell you it's a work of art. It's not: it's a shit hanging from a stick.'

'Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct,' he added. 'But, a short pass? Noooo. A feint? Noooo. A change of pace? Noooo. A one-two? A nutmeg? A backheel? Don't be ridiculous. None of that. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.

If football is going the way Chelsea and Liverpool are taking it, we had better be ready to wave goodbye to any expression of the cleverness and talent we have enjoyed for a century.'

f
finn 270 days ago

England have two really good wins against two decent sides. I have found both matches really exciting, but I guess some people will just never be happy.

Its also important to note that a few of the handling errors were made because England were taking the ball extremely close to the defensive line before making passes. That's exciting! In this match it meant lots of interceptions and end to end rugby. With a little bit more time and cohesion it could mean consistently brilliant attacking rugby.

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