England’s victory over Tonga was the sort of performance you would expect to see in the first game of the warm-ups, rather than the first game of the tournament itself.
Over the past couple of years Tonga have lost by 85 points to New Zealand, by 50 points to Wales, by 34 points to Japan. They are ranked 15th in the world and their players rarely get the time together that England are afforded.
I wasn’t expecting to see England win by 100, but I thought they would create more clear-cut opportunities.
Tonga are big and imposing physically but I expected England to systematically pick them apart – to maul, pick and go through the middle, gradually tire them out, before going wide and ripping them apart with the pace of Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Elliot Daly.
Instead it took them nearly 60 minutes to get out of sight and they were often reliant on moments of individual magic from the likes of Watson and Jonathan Joseph to expose their weaknesses.
England, playing their own game and what is in front of them, should be good enough to beat Tonga all day, every day.
Instead they changed the way they play to accommodate Tonga. Early on especially they kicked away good balls and over-complicated their play with set moves. It was summed up by how England attempted to receive kick-off after their first try.
I think Maro Itoje’s team-mates were trying to extend the maul back into the England 22m to make the clearing kick easier for George Ford or Owen Farrell. Instead they got offside and gave away a penalty and a route straight back on to the scoreboard for Tonga.
In his post-match interview Farrell talked of how England attempted to deny Tonga targets for their trademark one-on-one hits.
It was completely unnecessary. When England focus on their own game they are scintillating and very difficult to beat. They are good enough to focus on what they are going to bring to the match rather than the opposition.
It is not news that England have struggled to change their strategy mid-game in the past. Why start doing so before the first whistle?
If they play their own way and have a couple of strategies up their sleeve to adapt to what the opposition are doing if they need to, they will maximise their chances.
They can’t afford to have another performance like that, because you then start to mend things in training, rather than moving forward positively towards the next iteration of how you want your team to play.
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For all the rustiness collectively and tactically, I think there were plenty of good individual performances.
Second row Itoje gave away a couple of penalties but I thought he showed his ability as a true enforcer.
He won four turnovers – more than any other England player – and disrupted the Tonga line-out. When he wants to alter how a game is going, he can do so in so many ways.
Centre Manu Tuilagi will take the headlines with his two tries. His bludgeoning power was in full evidence for his first score as he powered over from close range, but he also showed his canny game intelligence with the supporting line for his second.
Watson’s feet were electric and I thought Daly looked sharper than he has, with more threat with ball in hand.
The Tom Curry-Sam Underhill axis in the back row had an effect at the breakdown, slowing up Tonga’s ball and threatening turnovers. Lewis Ludlam, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonathan Joseph all did well off the bench.
Superpowers set the standard
England certainly were not at the level that either New Zealand or South Africa reached in the All Blacks win on Saturday. Or as strong as Ireland were in their win over Scotland. Or even as good as Australia were in their win over Fiji, where the Wallabies had to think on their feet to nullify some very useful opposition.
Ireland have been the most surprising of the home nations so far. I did not expect them to dispatch Scotland so convincingly, but they made Gregor Townsend’s side look very, very average.
That is a very good sign for them going forward.
United States of whoever
England have a four-day turnaround before they play a fresh United States side, 1,000km away from Sunday’s game, in Kobe.
That makes it tough for head coach Eddie Jones. We have all been second-guessing him since he got the job, but I would like to see more of a second team against on Thursday with firepower to come off the bench.
Although the line-up against Tonga looked close to it, I don’t think his first-choice XV is cut and dried just yet.
I imagine Joe Cokanasiga may get a chance to show what he can do on the wing. Mark Wilson’s inclusion may change the back row balance. George Kruis may get a chance to show what he can do as a second-row starter.
It will be a great chance for those on the fringes to put their hands up and say they are not here for the ride, they want to be playing against Argentina.
Matt Dawson was speaking to BBC Sport’s Mike Henson
Article source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/49789503