RWC 2019 Pool Game 7: Sloppy England do enough but nothing more

Photo: AJF Photography

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Highly-fancied England got their 2019 Rugby World Cup campaign off to a solid, if unspectacular start, with a 35-3 defeat of Tonga in Sapporo last night. A promising opening wasn’t rewarded with the points on the board they were after, and it took until the 75th minute to rack up the bonus point. But it is the fourteen handling errors they coughed up that will be the main focus for Eddie Jones and his men moving forward.

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Mixing up their game up nicely in the early exchanges, England showed a willingness to use the width of the pitch and play on the hoof when the opportunity arose, but also use crossfield kicks and set-piece plays to try and stretch the Tongan defence. For all that though, the scoreboard remained untouched until Own Farrell slotted a penalty from in front to get them off the mark.

In a country known for it’s propensity for earthquakes, there may have been a few furrowed brows when Tongan openside Zane Kapeli hit Billy Vunipola with seismic ferocity in the 13th minute, much to the delight of the crowd and the Ikale Tahi bench. That excitement was amplified when England infringed in the aftermath, and scrumhalf Sonatane Takalua levelled matters with 3pts of his own.

It was discipline that was proving to be England’s achilles heel, as the game ticked into the second quarter with the penalty count four to one in Tonga’s favour. But when they got the chance to counter with ball in hand they looked dangerous, and they were within a fingertip of grabbing the first five-pointer when brilliant broken-field running from Farrell and  Manu Tuilagi paved the way for Sam Underhill to stretch for the line, only for the TMO to confirm he’d been held up.

The resulting five-metre scrum brought about another chat with the video assistant when Tuilagi blasted his way superbly through several red jerseys to go over, and this time they got the green light, England leading 8-3 after Farrell couldn’t add the extras from out wide. That could have been 8-6 when Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje concocted an accidental obstruction from the restart, only for Takalua to push his penalty kick wide.

The unnecessary coach-killer got the wholly expected and singularly unimpressed response from Eddie Jones on the big screen. But his side curried some favour back with a well-worked score a couple of minutes later, Farrell shifting it wide for Elliot Daly’s quick hands to release Jonny May down the left touchline, and he had Tuilagi in support for an easy run home for his second.

Jonny May_Atieli Pakalani_England v Tonga_RWC 2019_AJF

Jonny May and Eastwood’s Atieli Pakalani race for possession – Photo: AJF Photography

Another surge as they began to click into gear ended with Ben Youngs just shy of the chalk, and Tonga conceding a penalty from right in front for playing the ball on the floor. Farrell opted for the easy 3pts and a chance to go in search of another five-pointer from the restart as the clock ticked down to half-time. But that’s how it stayed, both sides heading to the sheds with England firmly in the box seat, but yet to light the touch paper.

With a clear mindset of putting the result to bed before flexing their attacking muscles fully, Farrell slotted another 3pts after the restart. Tonga enjoyed a fair degree of possession over the next 10 minutes, but were struggling to make any inroads into a well-marshalled England defence, with Underhill putting in a sterling shift over the ball to spoil many an attack.

However, the handling of the gun openside let him down metres from the line and with numbers outside him on 51 minutes, following terrific work from George Ford, who chased his own kick to the corner and helped force a turnover. And that wasn’t the first time that they’d dropped the ball in the second stanza, as the expected onslaught of points failed to materialise.

Coach Jones had seen enough and made five changes, whether to preserve those they replaced, or fire up those that remained. But it had an immediate effect, the revamped pack masterminding a textbook lineout maul that went almost the entire 22 for hooker Jamie George to dot down.

The unforced errors persisted though, England continuing to let their opponent’s off the hook with sloppy play that was a mile away from some of the slick execution they showcased in the warm-up games, in particular when putting Ireland to the sword by 50-plus. And while the lineout was enjoying some pay, their scrum had failed to exert any dominance over their Tongan counterparts, who were standing up to the challenge manfully as the game entered the final 10 minutes with no change to the scoreboard.

Luke Cowan Dickie_England v Tonga_RWC 2019_AJF

England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie slides home for the bonus point – Photo: AJF Photography

England should have had their bonus point in the 74th minute, a dazzling run from deep from Anthony Watson that left a bevy of Tongans in his wake, recycled wide for an overlap that was royally butchered when Henry Slade threw the killer pass in behind Elliot Daly with the line open. But they made amends shortly after, Jonathan Joseph cutting a tiring defence apart with a jinking run and offload for replacement rake Luke Cowan-Dickie to run in, for what could be a very important extra point in the ‘pool of death’.

A box ticked by England in the end, but not exactly a performance to send chills down the rest of the competition. There were sparks of brilliance, they kept their line intact, and there’s every chance they were keeping a few things up their sleeves. While credit must also go to Tonga for hanging in for the full 80, and finding a way to stifle the flow their opponents were keen to play with.

But they will know that their discipline and execution levels – fourteen handling errors in all – will have to be ramped up several notches for the pointy end of the pool stages against France and Argentina, before they can even think about knockout finals footy.

 

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ENGLAND 35 (Manu Tuilagi 2, Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie tries; Owen Farrell 3 cons, 3 pens) defeated TONGA 3 (Sonatane Takalua pen) HT 18-3 at Sapporo Dome

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