It was a try that rather summed it all up. For 56 minutes, England and Japan had stumbled about, frantic, flustered and fumbling in the Nice heat. An error-ridden contest hung in the balance – until Joe Marler used his head.
It was fortuitous in nature, as it felt like it had to be on a night like this. An errant pass, a flick of Will Stuart’s shoulder and a bounce off the bonce. Courtney Lawes collected the refuse and England salvaged the situation. Maro Itoje had promised they were prepared to win by any means necessary but few expected them to need to put an equally error-prone Japan away.
There was time enough for one moment of magic: England had kicked inaccurately all night but George Ford at last arrived at the jive, a delicate dab off his left boot landing in Freddie Steward’s huge hands in the corner. Coupled with Joe Marchant’s bonus point securing score, at last the travelling fans who earlier flooded the Promenade des Anglais could get out of their seats.
But until then, precious little. Given the rush job in getting this side together, England are likely to favour substance over style but they had not even that here. Perhaps what was most stark on a night where Japan gave them plenty was how the bedrock of their game faltered – inaccuracy with the boot and some set-piece errors. The foundations may have been put down in last week’s win against Argentina but the rest of England’s grand designs are yet to come together.
In retrospect, Semisi Masirewa’s first minute fumble set the tone for the slipshod contest to come. The Japan full back ambled back beyond his own line to collect a grubber but could not grasp it, with a subsequent penalty granting Ford the chance to put England in front. Masirewa lasted not even five minutes more before an apparent groin injury ended his evening early.
But his error imbued the encounter with a slapdash spirit on a humid night that left the air sticky and thick like treacle. England had begun promisingly enough but soon familiar failings started to show. An interminable maul threw off the timing of an attempt to get both Joe Marchant and Manu Tuilagi presenting themselves as options on the crash ball, while twice in the first 20 minutes England committed basic lineout errors, once in defence and then in attack, to concede free kicks.
George Ford was charged down by Rikiya Matsuda, with only some outstanding scrambling from Alex Mitchell and Lewis Ludlam sparing the fly half’s blushes. Married with some intelligent kicking and sharp service from Yutaka Nagare at scrum half, it wasn’t long before Japan were in front through two strikes of Matsuda’s right boot.
It looked like it would take another gift for England to score again, and Japan obliged as an unattractive lineout was further defaced by a fumble at the tail. Ollie Chessum was just about denied, but Lewis Ludlam, brought into the side to replace the suspended Tom Curry, gleefully gobbled the gift.
But the English errors continued to come. Ford missed from the tee before Jonny May’s needless barge allowed Matsuda three more points. Steward and Ford twice got themselves in a tangle in the English backfield. The cheers that greeted a decision to prod to the corner rather than go for goal soon turned with boos as Jamie George spilled his supper coming around the corner.
Thankfully for a frustrated Steve Borthwick, Japan were also caught up in the sludge. A humid evening saw the air sticky and thick like treacle, leading to a series of errors of hand and foot. Ford’s second penalty extended England’s half-time advantage to four points.
There were briefly brighter glimpses for England after the resumption, Elliot Daly twice cantering up the left, but to no avail. Alex Mitchell, usually such an intuitive attacking threat for club Northampton, twice aimlessly kicked quick possession away to boos, almost of betrayal, from his supporters. Matsuda was accurate again and Japan closed in.
Then came the defining moment, Marler nodding on and Lawes the fastest to react. The use of an Englishman’s head last week led to a two week ban; this week, it led to a vital second score.
The England captain’s weary, almost apologetic put down spoke to a revealing performance of imperfections. This was the week that England had promised their attack would start to come together, and while Steward and Marchant’s late scores added a degree of gloss, it could not hide the flaws apparent beforehand.