That does not tell half the story, though, for England got a horrible fright from Jones’s old team and required 25 unanswered second half points to correct an opening 50 minutes that were all Japan. They were everything Eddie Jones had warned England about – wanting to run everything, offloading brilliantly and stretching the hosts, who really had to fight for a victory that included four tries. In the end, England ran out 35-15 winners.
Jones had high hopes for 80 minutes of experimentation, but none of those he backed stood up and after 50 minutes, when England were still behind, many of the experiments had been aborted. Zach Mercer and Alex Lozowski were off and Jack Nowell had made an – admittedly enforced – returned to the wing and Mark Wilson to No8. Old faithfuls like Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Kyle Sinckler were on.
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That first half had started so well for England. The conditions – perfect blue skies, not too cold (at least by London in November standards) – looked tailor made for Jones’s team to strut their stuff and shift the ball through hands. They were doing exactly that to score inside three minutes. A loose Japan kick found Elliot Daly in backfield space. He slipped to Joe Cokanasiga on the left wing, who made his first meaningful charge before delicately touching inside to Jamie George. He released Danny Care, who charged 30 metres to cross.
That score was followed, though, by a period of dogged defence in which England gave away three kickable penalties in their own 22. Each time, Japan declined a shot; twice they went for the corner, the third a scrum. Eventually Maro Itoje turned over and England escaped, only to give another penalty away, which fly-half Yu Tamara knocked over from 35m out.
Still, they had shown they were here to play, as left wing Kenki Fukuoka hammered home shortly after with a scintillating run. More flying running from their outside backs – and a neat through the legs pass from Ryoto Nakamura – on turnover ball saw Japan forge their way into England’s 22 and, when the hosts gave away their fifth penalty of the first quarter, George was sin-binned for going off his feet. Again, the kick went to the corner.
England spoiled the lineout enough to force a scrum, but that was no good as scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka sniped, then fed Nakamura, who beat Lozowski’s tackle to touch down under the posts. Tamara’s conversion gave Japan a remarkable lead. They were worth it, having dominated possession and territory.
That forced England into pragmatism and, when they won a scrum penalty on halfway, Daly knocked over the sort of long kick that he is making habitual. The scores were level.
Japan were undeterred. That rapid, almost error-free offloading game coupled with brutality at the breakdown was stretching England and soon enough they had their second score. It was the talismanic captain Michael Leitch who scored, slipping off a double-hit from Care and Dylan Hartley, then fooling Daly.
To make things worse for England, Chris Ashton – who had been a double before the game – was forced off with injury and replaced by Henry Slade. The experiment of playing Jack Nowell at centre had lasted 31 largely unsuccessful minutes.
The conversion was missed, and that England went to half-time with just a five point deficit was down to a brilliant try-saving tackle from Lozowski to deny Leitch a second in the corner. They weathered another storm and, if to illustrate Japan’s dominance, Care called for mercy, kicking out to end the half rather than sparking a counter-attack. England had had just 23% territory and 31% possession (on the rare occasions they did have the ball, they looked panicked); a five point lead was no reflection of Japan’s dominance.
A wild dressing down from Eddie Jones awaited England. Japan, on the other hand, returned early to practise their set piece.
Jones immediately summoned Farrell in place of Lozowski. He was straight into the action, finding a superb touch, then releasing Nowell with an excellent offload as England found their range.
Points, though, were not immediately forthcoming. One kickable penalty went to the corner but came to nothing, then another saw England settle for three points through Ford, who was increasingly central to England’s good work, 15 minutes into the half. He would knock over three more pragmatic points, but not before setting up England’s second try for Mark Wilson. In 10 minutes, England had converted a two-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
Tiring limbs and the loss of the lead did not stop Japan. Fukuoka remained a nuisance out wide and they won another penalty at the scrum that brought another lively foray into England’s 22. But when they were pinged for holding on, England pounced to secure their win. The kick for touch was followed by another kick that Japan fumbled into George’s hands. He released Richard Wigglesworth, who timed his pass perfectly to send Cokanasiga thundering over.