England build momentum for big tests ahead
England are back on track after a performance full of devil and cleverness, but the sweep of their play was of secondary consideration on a sweaty evening here. High tackles and red cards are the theme of this World Cup and the debate over consistency and double standards will run and run.
The first red card of the tournament was shown to United States flanker John Quill for a wild, shoulder-led assault on Owen Farrell in the 69th minute, but England were fortunate not to lose Piers Francis after just five seconds.
The Northampton centre showed up well in a bristling England display inspired by the bold, creative play of fly-half George Ford, but his upfield charge from the kick-off led to a high and reckless clatter into US full-back Will Hooley.
The crackdown has begun in earnest on such challenges and Francis steamed into contact without much care and attention. Being sent off in the first play of the match could have been a game-changer.
He escaped any sanction from Australian referee Nic Berry, but the Hawk-eye cameras miss nothing and given the actions taken against Wallaby wing Reece Hodge, the commissioners are unlikely to turn a blind eye. Berry, a former scrumhalf at Wasps, was himself forced to retire through concussion. That’s the measure of the debate – contact with the head can be career-ending.
US coach Gary Gold had no issue with the red card shown to Quill for his horrible smash into Farrell, who was just regathering his own knock-on when the American whacked him. Farrell hit the turf and lay there for a few seconds before jumping to his feet as a fracas ensued.
World Rugby has been entirely right to take the stance it has, rebuking its own officials on Tuesday by saying that the decisions on this matter had not been good enough. With news from France that a lawsuit has been launched after the death of a Stade Francais player, it is time for the game to get serious.
That early Francis blemish aside, there is a sense of a gathering force about England. On the field, their play was crisper and more varied than it had been against Tonga, with the fourth-try bonus secured by the 48th minute as Joe Cokanasiga thudded over, while off it the stands were packed with white shirts.
All power to the elbows of the 10,000 or so who had made the trek, for raising a glass of beer to the lips in these parts is not the cheapest activity in the world, but the supporters are prepared to pay a price as they know these World Cup adventures can yield special memories.
And England now have promise, far from perfect, spilling ball in the humid conditions but with a spring in their step with maximum points and no injuries. Prop Mako Vunipola and wing Jack Nowell have a strenuous fitness session scheduled to see if they will be in the mix for the game against Argentina in Tokyo tomorrow week.
There is plenty of serious business to come with the toughies in the pool, Argentina and France, certain to provide a sterner test of England’s resources than the US managed. Gold, admirably honest and straight-talking, admitted that “we let ourselves down badly today and were taught a lesson”.
They certainly were. It is all very well bemoaning the quality of the opposition but a team still has to exploit that advantage and through the consummate operator that is Ford, England did just that. Their forward pack looked as if they had been feasting on the local speciality, the renowned Kobe beef, with a display of full-bore power in the scrum and in the driving maul leading to tries for Billy Vunipola and Luke Cowan-dickie.
They provided a platform which Ford used to best advantage, managing the game through astute kicking, flicking passes away with real deftness and showing such sharp footwork that he was able to score the opening try himself with a dart and then step inside a defender to send Lewis Ludlam over the line in the 66th minute.
The US were overwhelmed in the set-piece as well as in the kicking game and were porous in defence, with England running through them at will. Their cause was compromised by two serious-looking injuries, to 19-year-old prop David Ainuu in the very first minute as well as full-back Hooley. There were further England tries in the second half for Cokanasiga, who scored a couple, Ruaridh Mcconnochie and Ludlam.
England were in their pomp, with prop Ellis Genge running free, but much more rigorous assignments lie ahead. There is still scope for improvement but they head to Tokyo on Sunday in good heart.