Opening display fuels optimism but Japan offer very different test
It is typical of England as a sporting nation that we can write off a team for a couple of months, they then dig out a defiant victory against Argentina and suddenly we expect them to stick 40 points on Japan. That is the nature of the expectation that comes with representing England, however, and it is something Steve Borthwick’s side must confront this weekend. The challenge stems from the fact that it is a completely different test against Japan. England face opponents who like to play at tempo and, although Borthwick’s men managed to get the job emphatically done against Argentina without doing so, they will have to score tries this weekend. Drop goals and penalties are all well and good but England will have to demonstrate their ability to play more expansively and continue their evolution. That doesn’t mean they need to come up with a completely different script but they must build on what they have done so far and tweak the gameplan. They will have even greater belief in knowing that what they did against Argentina can be effective, but now they must layer on the attacking detail. There will be opportunities to show they can stress a defence and England must take them. When you’re being written off and you’re using that energy to come together – not to prove everyone else wrong but to prove yourself right – that’s a huge emotional boost. This week they will feel as if that fog has been lifted but now it’s a different kind of pressure – how do we kick on, how do we go two from two? Now there’s an expectation to beat Japan and to do so in a certain style. We need to temper the expectation in the sense that it doesn’t need to be perfect, but when there are opportunities to find space, soft edges, whether in England’s half or Japan’s, I want the message to be: let’s go. Japan are very aggressive defensively and play with a high line so kicking is again going to be a key part of what England do, but I’d love to see variation. Japan are also a team who want a high ball-in-play time and want to move the ball well. There are two ways you can stop an opposition such as that: physicality on the ball or disrupting on the floor. That explains the selection of Lewis Ludlam because he tackles anything. The Northampton Saints flanker has unbelievable output and the intention will be for England to kill Japan on the floor. He’s an exceptional shot-stopper and has unbelievable heart. He doesn’t stop for 80 minutes and the fact that Ludlam finished as one of England’s top tacklers against Argentina, despite playing only the last 15 minutes, says everything about him. The best thing I can say about England’s performance last week is that it was probably the most one-sided match between two tier-one nations I’ve seen all year. Argentina are a very good team, make no mistake, but were made to look ordinary by England. Over the summer warm-up matches England were not able to exert scoreboard pressure – they always seemed to be chasing games – but against Argentina we saw how effective it can be. Combine that with tactical discipline, work rate and physicality and they were totally in control of the game. In situations like that, you need your big players to step up and show their personality. Everyone leads in their own way – Courtney Lawes is a very different leader to George Ford – but the manner in which they conserved energy to the extent that they were comfortable in the final 10 minutes really was exceptional. Courtney has got a great feel for the team. He’s incredibly personable, down to earth and relatable. He’s honest with his opinions and it’s great to see how he’s developed as a player and a person. When Lawes made his debut he was raw, athletic, physical and had a good rugby brain but you wouldn’t automatically say he’s a leader. But he is the type of person you’d want to follow. If he asks you to do something you know he would be willing to do it himself. England kicked more than 95% of their possession against Argentina. It’s a huge amount but what I saw was knockout rugby implemented in game one. We didn’t score a try but we battered Argentina. When you have a player sent off you find a way to get it done and they did so comprehensively. Going down to 14 men seemingly heightened England’s ability to think even more clearly. The gameplan we’ve seen was something we’ve associated with England for a while; energy, physicality and set-piece. But when you’re down to 14 men you know you have to stick to the gameplan that much more. In some regards, I think they actually felt more comfortable. However, it would be a mistake to retain that mindset against Japan; the evolution needs to continue.