Autumn Nations Series: Five takeaways from England v Japan as the hosts’ young guns impress

James While

England's Freddie Steward (left) and Marcus Smith embrace after the Autumn International match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday November 12, 2022.

Following a 52-13 victory for England over Japan in their Autumn Nations Series fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at Twickenham.

The top line

England resumed business as normal at Twickenham as a powerful display in the first half saw them on their way to a convincing win against Japan.

Put bluntly, they looked like a side who’d spent all week receiving rocket after rocket up their backsides after their lacklustre performance last Sunday versus Los Pumas and, as a result, everything they did seemed faster, more powerful and more imaginative.

Their defence and aerial game were the standouts; much quicker off the line to pressure the Japanese midfield and with enormous power and intensity at the breakdown, with debutant David Ribbans particularly prominent in the abrasive grind of contact.

A lot of Japan’s issues were self-inflicted. They dealt poorly with England’s aerial bombardment and faced with a very aggressive defensive effort, their keenness to run the ball out of their own half caused them no end of issues and resulted in the concession of two tries.

With Ellis Genge in ruthless mood in the scrum, Sam Simmonds, Jonny Hill and Tom Curry standing out in a high quality pack, Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith redeemed their partnership reputation with a variety of attacking plays in midfield. Eddie Jones will have a wry smile on his face; he said last week that England were close to completing the moves and intent he wanted and on Saturday, they managed to vindicate Jones’ confidence.

Defence the key

England’s defence against Argentina was slow in foot, dull in thinking and very wide and thin. Saturday was a completely different kettle of fish, with Anthony Seibold changing the formation to put another man in the boot from the wide outside and to use pace and blitz from the outside backs to prevent Japan getting across and around them.

This relied upon real speed of blitz and, rather remarkably, the work of Smith getting up out of the line and Genge rushing like a bull at the 10/12 partnership England created havoc in the Japanese midfield.

With Maro Itoje playing more like a flanker than he did last week and with immense physicality from the rest of England’s back five, they won a lot of contacts and turned over many rucks by legal driving of the men over the ball.

At the heart of their defensive effort was a quietly wonderful display from Simmonds, England’s number eight. A man more normally thought of for attacking prowess, his workrate and accuracy in his ruck and pillar work was absolutely outstanding and he thoroughly vindicated his selection

Steward and Smith

England’s young guns, Freddie Steward and Smith, stepped up to play to the level of expectation that is always upon these two young talented backs. With Guy Porter doing great work in kick chase, Steward absolutely dominated the airways, his 6’5” frame causing the Japanese back three no end of issues. With Smith in creative form and matching Steward kick for kick and chase for chase, the pair combined brilliantly in the 71st minute when Smith ran on to a speculative kick from the full-back to scoot over for a brace.

Smith might have argued that Steward was just repaying a debt. In the 24th minute, fantastic English defensive pressure deep in the Japanese 22 saw Owen Farrell whip a delightful pass to Smith looping around him into the second receiver berth; the fly-half took and gave with a lighting piece of handling to send Steward over as he ran a lovely line in the 13 channel.

It was absolutely classic England play and a massive step up from the stodge we saw last week.

Disappointing Blossoms

In recent years, the rugby watching folk have come to expect a lot more of Japan than they saw in this match. Bluntly they were bullied up front, smashed in contact and absolutely eviscerated in the aerial battle, where England used their superior height to good effect.

At scrum time, Jiwon Koo really struggled to deal with the directness, angle and power of Genge. A smaller prop, time and time again he turned in to present the England loosehead with a small shoulder but every time he ended up either on the floor or in the air as a result of the hosts’ scrummage. The dark arts might not be the fan’s favourite part of the game, but it was England’s platform and a key point of difference and superiority for Jones’ men.

Sure, there were a few performances to be pleased with; Michael Leitch was his usual perpetual motion self and in the engine room, Warner Dearns made some big dents, none bigger than his drive through a ruck to set up Naoto Saito to slide over under the posts.

But all in all, Jamie Joseph and John Mitchell will be wholly disappointed with this outing – the rugby world has come to expect more from this proud side.

The big one awaits

With New Zealand next week – the first time that England have played them since 2019 and the first at Twickenham since 2018 – all eyes are now looking at selection for this game.

Today was quantumly better for Jones and in a good way he now has selectorial headaches of the positive kind. Ribbans looked abrasive and powerful, Simmonds was fantastic and Jack van Poortvliet offered pace and intellect aplenty.

On the downside, for the second week running, the introduction of Mako Vunipola led to a penalty that led to a try, with his brother also equally culpable as Japan pounced on a loose pass from big Billy. The continued retention of these two great servants of English rugby can go on no longer, but Jones will know that playing the All Blacks is not the time to introduce rookie props and back-rowers.

It’s likely that Jones will retain something close to the side that started today, with maybe one change in the centres and Jamie George starting at hooker. But if England are to beat a side of the calibre of the All Blacks they’ll need a lot more impact from their veterans on the bench than we saw in this match.

READ MORE: England ease to dominant victory over Japan at Twickenham