England avoided a repeat of the 2015 miracle upset by defeating Japan 35-15 at Twickenham, but it took a second-half fightback from Eddie Jones’ side to ensure an already bad week for English rugby did not get worse against his former side.
After losing to New Zealand last weekend in a match they should have won, England were very much in danger of becoming the latest scalp on Japan’s record, following their Rugby World Cup upset three years ago in defeating South Africa that was inspired by the man now leading this England side.
But half-time adjustments, plus the introduction of Owen Farrell, helped bring England to life and the tries scored by Mark Wilson, Joe Cokanasiga and Dylan Hartley, adding to Danny Care’s first-half score, ensured the home side returned to winning ways ahead of their final Quilter Internationals against Australia next weekend.
It all started so brightly for England. The sun was out, the rain that battered Twickenham last weekend was nowhere to be seen and a full stadium awaited their arrival with great anticipation. For the first three minutes, it looked like business as usual.
Running out of the tunnel for the first time in an England shirt was Joe Cokanasiga, the giant 21-year-old wing who celebrated his birthday on Thursday with his first call-up to the squad. It took the near-19-stone goliath a matter of seconds to make his presence felt as he was brought onto the ball inside half-a-minute, and the next time he was brought into play England were over the line. Cokanasiga found space wide left after Elliot Daly fielded a poor chip from Japan fly-half Yu Tamura, and as he charged towards the 22, the Bath flyer was aware enough to offload to Jamie George on his inside shoulder, who released the supporting Care to score.
Seven points on the board early, and England looked to be in cruise control. But then this has been no normal week at Twickenham. Jones attempted to mix things up by giving his players until Tuesday to report for camp. What followed was a team selection that showed 11 new faces - despite Jones claiming he would field his strongest side - and the turmoil deepened on Friday when chief executive of the RFU Steve Brown unexpectedly resigned in mysterious circumstances.
The least England needed was yet another shock, but it came. After Tamura chipped three points off the lead with a penalty for Jack Nowell not releasing the tackle, Japan brought the pressure. England have already shown a frailty in defence on their own line in Maro Itoje’s yellow card against South Africa, and when the pressure came once more it was Jamie George who fell foul of the law, brainlessly diving off his feet to kill a Japan counter-attack in its tracks.
Jones sent Dylan Hartley on to plug the gap, but within two minutes they paid the price. In what will be one of the easiest tries conceded at Twickenham, scrum-half Fumiaki Takana fed first-phase ball from the scrum to Kyoto Nakamura, and he simply sidestepped Alex Lozowski to score under the posts. Perhaps feeling the pace from missing four weeks of rugby due to suspension, Lozowski would not see the second half.
England were able to respond with a monster penalty from halfway, struck by their long-range kicker Daly, but Japan’s reaction was even mightier. Attacking from left to right, England looked to have defused the move by wrapping up right wing Akihito Yamada, but he somehow offloaded the ball to Michael Leitch and the skipper galloped down towards the try line, breaking the tackle of Care and evading Hartley and Harry Williams before stepping inside Daly to score.
The conversion put Japan 15-10 up and England, amazingly, were on the ropes. Care turned down the chance to attack to kick the ball into touch and bring the half to a close, but having had just 31 per cent possession and 23 per cent territory, you could understand why.
Jones responded by sending on his general-in-chief, Owen Farrell, for Lozowski to restore his 10-12 partnership with Ford that hasn’t been seen since the summer tour of South Africa, and it sparked England into life. With Farrell’s vision, the extra time he was afforded at inside centre, and a natural 13 outside him in Henry Slade - on for an injured Chris Ashton - the hosts started to get there hands on the ball and turn it into possession, which in turn produced precious territory and eventual points.
Japan were not helped by the loss of Tanaka at the break, but after Ford cut the deficit to two points with a penalty after Leitch took the fly-half out beyond the ruck, England started to click. Ford was proving at the middle of it all, as he spotted the Japanese defence a man short on the blindside, attacked to stretch the covering Leitch and found Mark Wilson supporting on his inside should to send him over for his first international try.
The firsts continued soon after Ford kicks another penalty, as George reacted fastest to a loose high kick, found Saracens teammate Richard Wigglesworth sprinting up on his left and the replacement scrum-half sent Cokanasiga away for a try on his debut. You get the feeling it will not be his last.
With breathing space, England stretched their legs and started to pull away, with Hartley bagging a second try in as many weeks with a catch-and-drive in the corner, and while it ensured that England finished on a high and avoid a unneeded slip-up, it was not the comfortable day at the office that many expected.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies