An England v Japan clash would usually be insignificant as we look towards a packed weekend of Test rugby, but that very much won’t be the case at Twickenham on Saturday.
Few Australians warm the hearts of Englishmen and women and it is fair to say the boss of their rugby team, Eddie Jones, is not particularly enhancing his reputation with the public at the moment.
Jones is a man under duress following a poor couple of years in charge, which has seen them end both the 2021 and 2022 Six Nations with losing records.
A series victory over the Wallabies briefly reduced the pressure on the head coach, even if stylistically it was pretty dreary fare, only for last weekend’s defeat to Argentina to bring back the naysayers.
While Jones has consistently stated that the only thing which matters is the Rugby World Cup in just under a year’s time, there needs to be progress and, at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any.
When England last struggled back in 2018, the November campaign proved to be a vital building block towards the global tournament 11 months later, but on the evidence of Sunday’s encounter, the improvement does not appear to be forthcoming this time around.
It means that the clash against Japan takes on added importance. For one, they simply must win and, secondly, there needs to be something tangible for the supporters to hold onto in terms of performance.
Neither of those two things are guaranteed, especially against a Japan side which, in contrast to their opponents this weekend, have displayed significant developments.
Jamie Joseph’s men had a disappointing 2021, and ultimately they have not really kicked on since their World Cup quarter-final appearance in 2019, but they were impressive against the All Blacks.
They will play with no fear and, versus an England side which seems to be both constrained and subdued, it may well be a tough afternoon for the Red Rose.
Where the game will be won
One of the impressive aspects of Japan’s game against the All Blacks was their ability to deal with the visitors’ much-improved set-piece. Jason Ryan has done an excellent job with the New Zealand forwards, but the Brave Blossoms were very competitive in scrum and lineout and, if they repeat that effort, Joseph’s charges will cause England problems. The Red Rose will, however, be far more direct than the three-time world champions, putting real emphasis into the set-piece and looking to get on top through their front five.
Unlike Ian Foster’s men, who used the game to try out a few things behind the scrum, England will seek to exert pressure through their pack and kicking game. If the Brave Blossoms can withstand that onslaught and compete well in the air, while also handling the hosts’ big runners in phase play, the free-spirited Japanese have the quality to create opportunities. Ultimately, we can’t see them getting enough ball to win the game but Japan should give them a fright.
Last time they met
What they said
England wing Jack Nowell insists that it is time they start eradicating the errors which have plagued their game over the last 12 months.
“The frustrating thing from the weekend is they are the same messages we have been saying over the past year or so,” he told BBC 5 live.
“Scotland away [in February], the penalty count lost us the game. Australia first Test [in July], the penalty count let them back into the game. These are the lessons we need to be learning and learning quite quickly.
“Before we know it we will come into the Six Nations and you can’t lose a game then to kick yourself forward. It’s the same in the World Cup, you can’t be losing games in your group. We need to start learning now.
“It is always a concern, but we aren’t looking at each other thinking why aren’t we winning these games – we know why we are not winning.
“So it’s up to us players to own it a little bit more, but we had some good conversations about it yesterday with a few boys holding their hands up knowing that it’s not good enough for the team.”
Japan head coach Joseph is looking forward forward to facing another big rugby nation after running the All Blacks close two weeks ago.
“As a team we’re very excited about going to Twickenham, we all know it’s a very different and unique rugby environment,” he said.
“It’s exciting because we play them in the World Cup next year, we are up against a tier one nation and the players are raring to go after their performance against the All Blacks.
“Against the All Blacks, we shut their lineout down, shut their maul down, but it still wasn’t enough and that sort of tells you how good they are as a team.
“They key for us really is to go to England now and replicate that performance against a better team.”
Players to watch
It was a fascinating selection from the England head coach, who has shifted some of the power from his backline and brought in some speed. Joe Cokanasiga is very unlucky to miss out, but the inclusion of Jonny May is perhaps to counter the fleet-footed Japanese. May has endured some injury and illness problems recently and his form is questionable, but the wing is still one of the quickest in the game. Despite being 32, the Gloucester man is rapid and will chase high balls all day, which is what Jones requires from his wingers.
In the centre, Guy Porter has taken over from Manu Tuilagi. Like with May, there are midfielders playing better than the Leicester man at the moment, but Porter had a solid tour in Australia and reads the game well defensively. He is still finding his feet at Test level, however, and a match against the Brave Blossoms will certainly challenge his rearguard skills. Porter is also a good ball carrier but he hasn’t had much chance to show that for the national team so far.
Up front, there’s a new cap in the shape of David Ribbans, who to us has always looked like a ‘Test match animal’, something that Jones is always looking for. Physical and abrasive, but also athletic and a smart lineout operator, Ribbans has all the skills necessary to succeed at this level. He packs down just ahead of Sam Simmonds, who seems to be a smart selection for this particular match. Simmonds has the speed of a back but is also very powerful and should test the visitors defensively.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 13, 2022
Japan will certainly need to stop England on the gain line if they are to stand a chance and Michael Leitch will once again be key to that. Despite advancing in years, the blindside remains an outstanding player and will be everywhere on Saturday. He will also look to support the props in the tight as the front-row seeks to neutralise the power of the English. Keita Inagaki and Jiwon Gu are very technically adept in the set-piece but Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are two excellent scrummagers and will test the visitors.
If they can get that platform then the backline has the skills, pace and confidence to really challenge the hosts’ defence. Kotaro Matsushima is always a joy to watch while Dylan Riley has settled in nicely at Test level since making his debut late last year. He combines with another excellent centre in the form of Ryoto Nakamura, who will run hard all day but, like every Japanese player, he has a superb skill set and England will have to watch his sleight of hand.
After struggling against Argentina, Tom Curry has another big Test when he goes head-to-head with the outstanding Kazuki Himeno on Saturday. Capable of playing across the back-row, the former Highlanders favourite is one of the best loose forwards in the world and showed why against the All Blacks. He produced a stunning performance display in that narrow 38-31 defeat and will no doubt cause a number of problems for the Red Rose at Twickenham.
Himeno has an incredible all-round skill set, both with and without the ball, and it will be exciting to see him running out at the ‘home of rugby’. Teams like Japan have far too little exposure against tier one nations, so when they actually face a few, it is a genuine treat to see players of the back-row’s quality testing himself. It will be a stern test of Curry’s capabilities, who hasn’t been at his best in a white shirt recently. Everyone knows what he can do and he will always put in a shift, but the 24-year-old is not impacting games as he would like.
Japan have nothing to lose and will severely test the hosts’ defence, but as the game goes on Jones’ men should eventually get on top up front. It won’t be pretty and therefore won’t satisfy the supporters, but the Red Rose will get the job done. England by 15
2018: England won 35-15 in London
1987: England won 60-7 in Sydney
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Guy Porter, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Jonny May, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 David Ribbans, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Joe Heyes, 19 Alex Coles, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Henry Slade, 23 Manu Tuilagi
Japan: 15 Ryohei Yamanaka, 14 Kotaro Matsushima, 13 Dylan Riley, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Gerhard van den Heever, 10 Takuya Yamasawa, 9 Yutaka Nagare, 8 Tevita Tatafu, 7 Kazuki Himeno, 6 Michael Leitch, 5 Jack Cornelsen, 4 Warner Dearns, 3 Jiwon Gu, 2 Atsushi Sakate (c), 1 Keita Inagaki
Replacements: 16 Kosuke Horikoshi, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Yusuke Kizu, 19 Wimoie Van der Walt, 20 Pieter Labuschagne, 21 Naoto Saito, 22 Seungsin Lee, 23 Siosaia Fifita
Date: Saturday, November 12
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:15 GMT
Referee: James Doleman (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry (Australia), Craig Evans (Wales)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)