England’s slow starters left with much to prove
RUGBY CORRESPONDENT The sight of Eddie Jones’s fist smashing into the coaches’ table in exasperation after yet another England indiscretion provided a telling snapshot of a tricky, discomforting curtain-up match for England. They yearned for fluency. They only got it in spurts.
They craved stability and accuracy and cleverness. Instead, their game was fractured and fitful and frustrating, good enough to secure a winning bonus four minutes from the end through a Luke Cowandickie try, but it was not a display to cause sleepless nights up and down the country in the camps of the other contenders. They were easy in their beds.
New Zealand put 92 points on Tonga pre-tournament: England spluttered their way to that all-important fourth try. They did the same against Fiji at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Billy Vunipola saving blushes in the last minute at Twickenham in that first-night opener. And we all know how that campaign ended.
Portents are not everything, but there was little of the sumptuous or polished about England. They do at least have another pool match to contest, against the United States in Kobe on Thursday, before it turns into effective knife-edge deciders against Argentina and France. On this showing, there will be relish in American eyes as they head to training this morning. There are no formalities in this event.
Tonga, as is their wont, were gutsy and defiant. The overwhelmingly better-resourced side in white, though, were too fit, too strong, too used to this elite level of competition. Tonga have only played against tier-one opposition four times in the last four years. England do that in a month.
England are a million-dollar operation, Tonga have to get by on £800 a week. There are 22 players at this World Cup alone who are eligible for Tonga but actually playing for other countries by dint primarily of residency rules or early emigration. England had everything in their favour yet laboured to a win.
It is only right that England are judged by the highest standards, for that is the benchmark that they set themselves. The All Blacks operate at such exalted levels. England have to show more, particularly given that they have spent the last two months locked away, honing and sharpening, plotting and scheming, preparing for a tilt at real glory. At times, they looked as if they had been cobbled together.
As first nights go, a director would hope that by the time the production hits the West End with box-office dates against the Pumas and Les Bleus, all the fluffed lines, all the intricate choreography, all the onstage interaction works far more smoothly. This is no time for The Play That Goes Wrong to hit Japan.
On the flip side, it is worth remembering that Tonga actually beat France in a 2011 World Cup pool game, only for Marc Lievremont’s side to the reach the final. Likewise in 2003, England struggled for an hour against Samoa in Melbourne before pulling clear. These are not easy fixtures and it would be doing Tonga a massive disservice to downplay their efforts as if this pool were no more than an Anglo-centric love-fest. Tonga can play and did play, and a lasting memory will be Zane Kapeli’s crunching early tackle on Billy Vunipola.
Jones referenced Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath, the former Manchester United manager having been invited into camp back in the UK. “Fergie Time”, that ability to get the job done no matter how late in the match, was a hallmark of his teams. This England did likewise, not panicking, not bellyaching, although Henry Slade did give Elliot Daly an arch stare after he ran too flat on to a pass that would have delivered that bonuspoint try in the 73rd minute.
Slade, who has been recuperating from a knee problem throughout the summer, did take another knock to the knee.
There were upsides, notably in the all-consuming efforts of Manu Tuilagi, who scored two tries, first as a battering ram and then at a canter, and looked as if he will be a real presence at this World Cup. There was a lively contribution, too, from Anthony Watson who grows in stature with each passing game, keeneyed, strong through the tackle and with a dab of pace to do damage.
England began at such a brisk lick, with Tuilagi’s brace on the board by the half-hour mark, that it was a reasonable expectation they would hit their straps as they had done so impressively in the warm-up match against Ireland in August. But that sort of harmony eluded them, that cohesive sense of each other. The first-half penalty count was six, above par for this level.
England gave away too many penalties, were too rushed, too edgy. Tonga were certainly not going to let them have it all their own way. Not when there is pride at stake, livelihoods to be earned for extended families and an audience to impress on this global stage. There was a wonderful backdrop to this fixture as well, the Sapporo Dome a space-age venue and an emblem of this fascinating country with its varied tapestries.
England did have bright spots, driving hard and over the line for a Jamie George try in the 56th minute, while a bracing run from Jonathan Joseph set up the bonus-point clincher from Cowan-dickie. England stuck at it. Fergie would have been proud. Most neutrals, however, will take more persuading. 3. Killer instinct An errant pass by Henry Slade (right), which was intended for Daly but ended up across the touchline, in the final stages could have been truly embarrassing if England had not rescued a bonus point. It also illustrated a lack of sharpness.
4. Over-reliance on kicking England’s kick-chase, led by wings Jonny May and Anthony Watson (far right, just failing to claim a kick through), was imposing and destructive. When Tonga recovered possession, though, they could frustrate England.
Crunch time: Billy Vunipola feels the force of Zane Kapeli’s early tackle