Eng­land’s slow starters left with much to prove

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby - At the Sap­poro Dome

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

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