England cannot afford another performance riddled with indiscipline against All Blacks

Japan's Tiennan Costley is tackled by England's Marcus Smith and Chandler Cunningham-South
Marcus Smith and Chandler Cunningham-South double up on Japan's Tiennan Costley - AFP/Yamazaki Yuichi

Discipline is a keyword in rugby – and for good reason.

That term is often misunderstood as it is linked to images of foul play. Although that is part of the picture, it is not the whole story. You might find it difficult to balance the fact that England recorded an eight-try victory over Japan with the observation that it was also an undisciplined performance. Whatever the seeming incongruity between those two points, a proper examination of the performance reveals it to be so.

To take the things that England did well in this regard, you can point to the fact that their defensive efforts in the first quarter of the game stopped Japan capitalising on their lightning-fast start. When England were under severe pressure, their defensive discipline prevented Japan registering an all-important opening try, which would have bolstered their confidence and made the game a very different affair.

It is to their credit that the new back-row combination of Chandler Cunningham-South, Ben Earl and Sam Underhill stayed in the game and gradually adjusted to competing at the breakdown, where the Japanese initially made the contest height far lower than usual. The pack as a whole deserve praise for eventually managing to slow the speed of Japan’s breakdown ball.

The brightest takeaway from England’s win was the form of Marcus Smith who, despite his yellow card, managed England’s more creative moments well. The highlight of the fly-half’s performance was his finishing of a training-ground attack from a long-distance line-out. His tactical kicking laid the foundation for England’s second try, for which he delivered a perfectly timed, 30-metre left-hand pass. In similar fashion, his cross-field punt for Henry Slade’s try was adroit.

Against such positives, though, we have to weigh one particular negative and it is one of overall indiscipline. You can argue that some of their offences were unlucky, like Bevan Rodd’s penalty in the first scrum. You could claim that Marcus Smith’s yellow card for an early tackle was committed under the severest pressure, when he was desperately defending close to his own try-line. You might even contend that some of the breakdown offences, like not rolling away after the tackle or going past the ball with the hands, were marginal calls.

What you cannot argue is that six such offences are acceptable, whatever the vagaries of the officiating. The best sides work out what is, and is not, being allowed during the game and stop doing things that antagonise the referee. This is part of the game and other sides adapt better than England.

For a team example of this flexibility, look at Ireland, a Test team who regularly record a single-figure penalty count. As an individual case, look at South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth. I do not think even he would deny that in his younger years he was, how shall we say this, a bit wild. Despite this, Etzebeth turned himself into a supremely effective forward who plays close to, but not over, the edge and does so by delivering crushing, legal tackles and fierce clear-out collisions.

England committed a further six penalties for indiscipline – four offsides when not under try-line pressure and two at the scrum for over-extending after engagement. These are simple matters of concentration, which is the cornerstone of discipline, and they are offences that seasoned internationals do not commit.

Then we come to the Charlie Ewels red card. There is no excuse for his action. It was from the side, without arms and targeted Michael Leitch’s right leg. I am not interested in questions of the player’s intent or his character, it was a potentially career-ending challenge that needs to be eradicated.

Ewels now has the distinction of being sent off in successive international appearances after only being on the field for less than 10 minutes. His subsequent two-match ban has required Nick Isiekwe to be called up. The Saracens man has not trained with the squad since early June and will not arrive in New Zealand until Tuesday, but he is just one injury away from being in the match-day 23. A brainless act could yet have deeper consequences for the team.

To give some context to England’s win, we should remember that this was their first outing on the tour and these games never run totally smoothly. Eight tries were scored against a highly inexperienced Japanese team who eventually had to concede that collision battle, but that will not happen against the All Blacks.

England do not start as favourites against New Zealand and the physical battle will be of a different magnitude to that of Japan. England cannot produce another performance that is riddled with indiscipline. Their task is already difficult; they do not need to compound this by conceding 16 penalties and playing a man down for nearly 30 minutes.