England are taking the concept of “winning ugly” to a whole new level at this World Cup. If there are no marks for artistic impression at major tournaments, the majority of this game could only be described as “entertainment” by serious masochists and leather-boot manufacturers. Steve Borthwick’s side are now effectively into the last eight but the boos which rang around the stadium as the ball was repeatedly booted skywards summed up the widespread mood.
Yes, England will point to the scoreboard which now reads two wins from two games as vindication of their kick-obsessed tactics but anyone who hails the first 65 minutes of this game as a step forward for perceptions of English rugby is kidding themselves. It was somehow fitting that their pivotal second-half try was a comedy of errors, the ball ricocheting off Will Stuart’s arm and Joe Marler’s head before falling into the path of Courtney Lawes with Japan having stopped playing in anticipation of a knock-on being called.
They did at least lighten up towards the end but until Freddie Steward latched on to a well-judged George Ford cross-kick in the 66th minute to score his side’s third try it had been a distinctly tough watch. England were tenacious at the breakdown and their scramble defence was consistently good. Their collective ability to find an extra last-quarter gear was another obvious positive. But compared with Fiji, Portugal and Uruguay, all of whom have won new friends for the way they try and play the game, there was precious little to lift anyone out of their seats.
England’s late spurt, though, did eventually earn them a try bonus point, Lewis Ludlam being rewarded for a typically character-laden display with a first-half score and Joe Marchant rounding things off with a try at the death. George Ford was again heavily involved and contributed 14 points with four conversions and two penalties but, with a collective total of 79 kicks out of hand, this was not the most expansive game of Test rugby ever played.
Having watched Fiji strike a glorious blow for rugby’s so-called underdogs, few expected Japan to back up their own famous World Cup wins over South Africa in 2015 and Ireland and Scotland four years ago. So it proved. Japan’s recurring inability to hang on to a greasy ball did not help and while they can still qualify for the quarter-finals their chances beating both Samoa and Argentina are, on this evidence, remote.
The Brave Blossoms’ best hope was that England would prove as divided as the Rugby Football Union currently seems to be. Disquiet around the council table, though, did not stop England responding well in adversity against Argentina and here was an obvious chance to maintain that momentum. It had been breezy on the Cote d’Azur during the day, so much so that some restaurants in the old town folded away their sun umbrellas as a precaution. In the steep-sided stadium, though, it was humid, warm and still, the sort of conditions which make for a slippery ball and sweaty fingers.
Both sides found it tricky, not least the Japan full-back Semisi Masirewa who contrived to knock on an overhit Elliot Daly kick in his in-goal area and placed his pack under instant, entirely avoidable pressure. It cost a swift three points via Ford’s right boot and did not bode at all well from his side’s perspective.
When Masirewa then hobbled off, his right leg having buckled following a slight push by Ben Earl, it completed one of the less glorious cameos of this tournament to date.Japan needed to start playing at the other end and, when they finally did so, they strung together some nice attacking phases which could easily have yielded more than just a penalty for Rikiya Matsuda.
Matsuda also created momentary panic in English ranks when he charged down an attempted Ford clearance, another example of Japan having done some useful homework. Sticking to an ultra prescriptive gameplan is all very well but the opposition tend to know what is coming.
The Brave Blossoms were also causing problems with their own little chips over the top and England were suddenly 6-3 behind courtesy of a second Matsuda penalty. They were suitably grateful when another Japan fumble close to their own line coughed up the ball to Ollie Chessum and provided a platform for Ludlam to force his way over with 24 minutes gone.
Other than that it was a largely unappetising first half for watching neutrals. Kicking the ball intelligently and well is a key part of the game. Kicking incessantly without even thinking about any other possibilities is the hallmark of a team with strictly limited horizons.
When Japan fought their way back to 13-12 down after 54 minutes via Matsuda’s fourth penalty it momentarily seemed possible that England might pay the price for their conservatism. Just as well, then, that Stuart’s arm and Marler’s cranium manufactured something out of nothing, after which England felt able to loose the shackles slightly.n
In the wake of Steward’s 66th-minute try, Marcus Smith came on to add his customary dash and Marchant, one of the brighter sparks in England’s recent games, also surged over in the closing seconds to give the scoreline a healthier appearance.
Next up for Borthwick’s squad is Chile in Lille this Saturday, an opportunity to rest a few bodies ahead of a fallow week and their final pool game against Samoa. At some point in France, though, they are going to come up against better teams who will ask more searching questions than their two pool opponents have managed to date.