Japan v England: Five takeaways including ‘coach-killing’ discipline, a magician at work and Brave Blossom positives

James While
England take on Japan in Tokyo.

England take on Japan in Tokyo.

Following England’s 52-17 win over Japan on Saturday, here are James While’s five takeaways from the action in Tokyo.

The top line

An error strewn and indisciplined display by England was far too good for the Brave Blossoms as Marcus Smith and his back-row shone in the heat of Tokyo to deliver a handsome victory in England’s first-ever Test against Japan in the capital city.

Eight tries from the visitors including a full house from the starting loose forwards probably flattered England but their physicality and ability to stay in the fight was a testimony to the spirit in the side. But indiscipline littered their display as they haemorrhaged 16 penalties, struggled greatly around the breakdown for the first half of the match, and conceded both a yellow and red card, spending most of the second half with 14 players on the pitch.

Japan had their moments; as Eddie Jones commented post-game their set-piece tenacity kept them in the match and the pace with which they aspired to move the ball was credit to their fitness and ambition. With eight new caps in their ranks, they grabbed two late scores as the heat set into the English legs at the end and will learn a lot from their outing today.

Key men

Smith put in a display that absolutely vindicated his selection as his brilliance created the first four English tries through a full package of fly-half skills. His 45-metre break for his own score was out of the top drawer as he looked to drift left before selling a dummy and skinning the Japanese scramble to fly under the posts. Other than his yellow card, a fair call for an early tackle as Japan threatened the English line, it was an impressive outing for the Harlequins 10 and one that will give both the team and himself a lot of confidence as England move to New Zealand for a two-match series.

Whilst Smith created, England’s back-row, including the bench impact of Tom Curry, started slowly but dragged themselves into the game to put in a massive collective shift. Initially, Japan’s ability to stay ridiculously low, as they carried the ball into contact and cleared out with real pacy aggression and accuracy, caused England no end of issues as they were forced to compete high to low, resulting in six or seven penalties. However, as Chandler Cunningham-South did the big man stuff on the blindside, smashing players on the gainline and carrying well, so Sam Underhill and Ben Earl adapted intelligently to the height battle at ruck time and as the game progressed, both men started to put dents into Japan each side of the ball, resulting in the starting trio all grabbing Test tries, a rarity.

With Curry returning to Test rugby looking even more muscular than ever, he stepped up the physicality to new levels and it was great to see him back. It was a Test match where the loose forwards battled back to put in a match-winning collective performance, but if they start as slowly around the contact area next weekend against the All Blacks, they might not have enough time in the match to adapt as they did today.

Japan’s positives

For 60 or so minutes the compactness of the Brave Blossoms scrum gave them a real platform as they managed to get under the bigger England front-row and give them a lot of issues to overcome. It was only as they tired when Joe Marler and Will Stuart came on, that England started to get their own way at scrum time, and with a perfect lineout performance, Jones will be thrilled at the success of his team’s set-piece.

They showed huge intellect in moving the ball with pace and ambition too, targeting the England 10 channel with runners at pace with clearers flying in a foot above the ground to give England no real hope of competition for the ball at the ruck. But in simple terms, they lacked the power carriers to tie in the English defensive line to create numerical mismatches and despite the ambition of the outstanding Naoto Saito at nine, who really injected pace into his passing, they struggled to break down the last line of the visitor’s defence.

Jone Naikabula had a big game on the right wing and Japan can do with getting his power into the midfield channels a little more than they managed, but both wingers put in some impressive moments. Up front Warner Dearns was a standout in both tight and loose, carrying powerfully through England’s midfield and setting up a try for replacement Samisoni Tua as Japan battled right through until the final whistle.

Indiscipline costly

If England concede 16 penalties and play 29 minutes with 14 players against the All Blacks next weekend, then they’ll lose by 50 points. So whilst there are a lot of positives to be taken from Saturday’s performance, Steve Borthwick cannot lose sight of the fact his settled team were playing a side with eight new caps in their ranks.

As noted previously, a lot of the transgressions were forced by the Japanese excellence and technique in contact and it took England a lot of time to work out a method of combating their height and speed in clearing and carrying. But other penalties were simply coach-killers; six were conceded for illegal jackaling going past the ball with hands or not rolling away. Another two for over-extension at scrum time and four for technical offside offences that Test players simply should not be conceding.

And to cap it all, Charlie Ewels managed to become the first England player to be sent off in consecutive appearances for his country, as he was dismissed for an illegal clear out from the side on Michael Leitch’s leg after only nine minutes on the pitch. This means he’s been set off twice in 11 minutes for his country, a remarkable and unwanted record for a man who is a genuinely decent bloke and popular member of the team. However, World Rugby have asked referees to be firm on lower leg clear-outs and Ewels’ clear-out might well have been much worse had Leitch not lifted his leg at the moment of contact.

Borthwick’s message to his charges should be clear – play as ill-disciplined as you did today in a week’s time and you’ll be toast.

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Fixes and Fettles

As England move to the Land of the Long White Cloud to face New Zealand they have a number of issues, two of them immediate, to contend with.

Ewels will obviously miss the rest of the tour which means that England are pretty stretched at lock, with Alex Coles a man that can step in but lacks the sheer grunt of a classical tighthead lock like the big Bath man. Less obviously, initial reports from within the camp suggest Smith is carrying a thigh knock which prevented his return after his yellow card and England will be sweating over his fitness for the next few days as, without his individual genius, the England backline were less than threatening. They were clearly lacking a big punchy carrier and with Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade still struggling to gel as a partnership, with Slade once again concerningly inaccurate with his distribution at 13 and Lawrence playing in a position less than optimal for his talents.

The back-row, as noted, clawed their way back into the game and with Curry really adding some physical impetus, Borthwick has a selection choice to make with all four of his men having their moments.

But up front, England will face a massive front-row from the All Blacks and if they scrummage as they did for the first 60 minutes of Saturday’s match, then they’ll be severely exposed in the set-piece.

It’s an even bet that Marler will start next weekend’s Test and given Stuart’s impact, he may very well unseat Dan Cole and leapfrog into the starting line-up.

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