NICE, France — It was scrappy, at times fractious, but England won’t care a jot as they reflect on a job done against Japan. Joe Marchant’s try in the last play of the game secured the bonus point to make it two wins from two at the Rugby World Cup with the trickiest two teams dispatched. England have one foot in the knockout stages and have conceded just one try in 160 minutes.
But still they remain a slightly confusing team to watch. It was far from perfect, but beating Japan four tries to nil is not an achievement you swipe aside without marking it down as a job done.
“Hopefully it’s a sign of a team that’s growing and improving,” flanker Ben Earl said afterwards.
“We know how hard we’re going to fight for each other and know again when it clicks it’s pretty good to watch and good to be a part of. We’re going to get better, we’ll be better for that and hopefully come next week we’ll take a step forward as a side.”
England’s four tries each told the story of where they were in the match at that moment.
Heading into the match the pre-match narrative revolved around the changes made by Steve Borthwick, England’s card count and whether the attack would fire. Each were ticked off – the changes paid off, England played with 15 men the entire match and they breached Japan’s defence four times. But still, work to be done and England only really got a stranglehold in the match after Freddie Steward’s 66th minute try.
But first, back to the start and their first one. Lewis Ludlam’s try in the 24th minute was a scrappy try off the back of a Japan error. Maro Itoje disrupted Japan’s lineout, the ball rebounded off defending lock Amata Fakatava and after Ollie Chessum’s charge forward, it was Ludlam who burrowed over the line. Up until that point it was Japan who had more ball and showed more intent; on the opposite side of the field, England were kicking away too much possession, the kicks were off-target and it teed up an ugly, stop-start match. The second half saw England attack with more impetus but after Japan showed some ingenuity in attack as they tried to kick over, under and run through England, it was England – against the run of play at that point – who scored their second. And all thanks to the head of Joe Marler.
Marler’s haircuts have had a varied, colourful existence. There was the phase of the orange mohawk. Another iteration saw him shave “Jolly Hog Sausages” into the side of the head, the name of his then teammate Ollie Kohn’s company with the promise of free sausages in return for the publicity plug. There was the red mohawk he sported to his first England training session under Martin Johnson. Johnson asked him if he was going to shave it off, Marler said no, and was left out of the squad the following day.
It’s a bit more of a settled palette now, the bleached trim has been in place for a while.
He’s always been unique, and so it had to be him who provided what has to be one of only a handful of headed assists in Rugby World Cup history. It was a fortunate try – Will Stuart’s misplaced catch was deemed to have gone backwards and it bounced straight on to Marler’s head. The ball looped off the top of his head – with the benefit of his peroxide-yellow mohawk – and gave Courtney Lawes a walk in.
“It was planned. You won’t believe this, but me, Dan Cole and Jamie George in our activation warm up back in the hotel, part of it was practicing our headers and it came to fruition tonight,” Marler said on ITV.
For those on the opposite side of the fence, Japan coach Jamie Joseph saw it as sign where luck just wasn’t on his team’s side.
“It was a first for me, mate,” Joseph said afterwards.
Up until that second try in the 56th minute which gave England a 20-12 lead, it had been a tight, ugly sort of match. The type of contest where repeated kicking was met with boos by the fans inside Stade de Nice and promising moves broke down because of handling errors on a stifling humid night. Japan showed more attacking intent, but suffered the same lapses in game management and execution as England.
But the try bought gallows humour on social media: “at last England use their head in attack” was one. Another was: “Finally, some heads up rugby”. But the significance of the try outweighed the fortunate nature. It broke Japan’s resolve.
From there, the replacements were judged well by Borthwick and George Ford’s pinpoint crosskick found Freddie Steward who charged over in the corner in the 66th minute Again, it was a moment where the game had opened up a little, England had won the arm wrestle, and scored off it.
And then came their last try. As Japan tried to run the ball off their own line and build some sort of challenge for a losing bonus point, instead it was the introduction of Marcus Smith that saw England move up a gear and his artistry helped tee up Marchant for that bonus point score just as the clock ticked into the 80th minute.
But beneath this all was a solid underbelly. England have only conceded one try in their first two matches, and that came late on against Argentina when the win was secured and England had managed to win the match with 14 men. To hold out Japan’s array of attacking threats is a decent return.
“We’ve been working hard on our defence. In the warmup games it wasn’t where it needed to be and again, we were really disappointed to concede late on last week,” Earl said.
“Kev [Sinfield, England defence coach] stressed that to the team, so hopefully we’re putting a bit of a marker out that to score against us, you have to produce something pretty magical and work pretty hard, so.”
England now have Chile next up in Lille. They should defeat them comfortably and then it’s Samoa last up. With Wales, Australia and Fiji locked in a monumental wrestle for the two spots in that group, England are essentially in the knockout stages, awaiting the outcome of Group D.
It wasn’t pretty but Borthwick won’t lose sleep over that. They came into the tournament in poor form, but after two matches, they have nine points, only conceded one try and have wins against Argentina and Japan to their name. Neither were perfect performances, neither the sort to send shockwaves through the tournament, but England won’t care one bit.
“They find a way,” Borthwick said.
England are building form and confidence and the Japan win will only add to the squad’s belief.