|England: (13) 34|
|Tries: Ludlam, Lawes, Steward, Marchant Pens: Ford 2 Cons: Ford 4|
|Japan: (9) 12|
|Pens: Matsuda 4|
England edged closer to the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals, but did little to impress in a scrappy 34-12 win over Japan in Nice.
Lewis Ludlam forced his way over from close range for the only try of a first half littered with England errors.
Rikiya Matsuda’s boot had Japan within a point at 13-12 early in the second half before a fortuitous try from captain Courtney Lawes, after the ball had bounced off the head of Joe Marler, gave England some breathing space.
Freddie Steward collected a cross-kick to dot down deftly and end any hopes Japan had of another Rugby World Cup upset to follow their famous scalping of South Africa in 2015, before Joe Marchant dived over in the final play of the match.
But it was neither a scoreline nor a performance to worry any of the tournament’s main contenders.
If anything, it will have confirmed to market leaders France, Ireland and South Africa that they are still operating several levels above England.
The whistles and jeers that followed several of England’s decisions to kick away attacking ball suggested some of their fans were similarly unimpressed.
Two victories from two matches against arguably their two strongest Pool D rivals means Steve Borthwick’s side are well set for the quarter-finals.
But they will need steep and stark improvement against Chile and Samoa to be in shape for the step up to knockout rugby.
Mistakes in attack and defence riddle England play
Japan faded and England, invigorated by their depth off the bench, improved in the final quarter, but the majority of the match was in keeping with start.
In a high-tempo opening passage, Marchant and Steward bashed up to within five metres as the Japanese defence creaked, but, to whistles from the crowd, George Ford opted to take three points from a penalty, rather than gamble for more.
If it was an opportunity wasted, it wasn’t the last. They wouldn’t be the last jeers either.
Borthwick’s side worked up more pressure and prime attacking positions but invariably allowed Japan off the hook and back upfield with eyesore errors.
One chance, as England’s forwards drove a line-out up to the Japan 22m line, was immediately squandered as Alex Mitchell’s pass from the back went to floor. Another disappeared as Lawes held onto the ball too long with Elliot Daly outside him. A third was wasted as Ben Earl lobbed a pop-pass into the face of Saracens team-mate Jamie George at the back of a line-out.
England’s only try of the first half, appropriately enough, came from an error, rather than their own accuracy.
A Japan line-out throw, close to their own line, dropped into the hands of Ollie Chessum. The Brave Blossoms’ defence scrambled to stamp out the danger, but were fatally out of shape when the ball was recycled and Ludlam charged at the flagging fringe.
Mistakes cost England at the other end as well. Ford’s clearing kick was charged down by Lomano Lemeki before Jonny May was pinged for a late hit. Both were followed by successful penalties by Matsuda as Japan kept pace on the scoreboard, moving to within one point in the 54th minute.
With a dogged Japan refusing to let a misfiring England out of range, a shock seemed eminently possible.
But England, as in their opener against Argentina, found their way out a tight spot.
Their second try arrived via another mistake, this time their own. A pass whizzed between the hands of replacement prop Will Stuart and thudded into the head of Marler, wrong-footing the Japan defence and allowing Lawes to snatched up and saunter under the sticks.
It was a stroke of luck that broke the back of Japan’s challenge and Steward’s superb gather and dot-down from Ford’s cross-field bomb ended the game as a contest, before Marchant crossed late on to add some gloss to the scoreboard.
There were several positives. Earl put in a superb shift, making the most tackles and the joint-most metres of any England player, with Ludlam impressing alongside him in the back row. Ford marshalled the backline well and Marcus Smith enjoyed a brief entertaining cameo at full-back off the bench.
But the problems were just as numerous.
What they said
England head coach Steve Borthwick: “I’m really pleased for the players and for the supporters here tonight. We have a fantastic traveling support, who spend a lot of money to watch this team. Tonight was tough but we have a good bonus point and we are pleased by that.”
England captain Courtney Lawes: “Full credit to Japan – we knew they would put up a fight. The ball was so greasy but we did well to come away with five points so I can’t ask for much more.”
Regarding his try: “That was a decent header from Joe Marler. Sometimes the luck falls in your favour so I will take it.”
England fly-half George Ford: “It was probably not the prettiest watching it. It’s really hard to play with the ball in these conditions. These late kick-offs, the balls are dead greasy but we got there in the end.”
Japan head coach Jamie Joseph: “I’m incredibly proud of the guys in terms of how they tried to execute our plan. There were parts of the game that surprised England in terms of the kicking game, we put them under a lot of pressure and created opportunities for us.
“What we learned from that is the opportunities we created, we didn’t take them. We made too many mistakes. It’s disappointing for us, the boys put a lot of emotional effort into this week.
England: Steward; May, Marchant, Tuilagi, Daly; Ford, Mitchell; Marler, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Chessum, Lawes (capt), Earl, Ludlam.
Replacements: Smith for Steward (69), Lawrence for Tuilagi (69), Youngs for Mitchell (60), Genge for Marler (60), Dan for George (75), Stuart for Sinckler (51), Vunipola for Ludlam (51), Martin for Lawes (64).
Japan: Masirewa; Matsushima, Osada, Nakamura, Naikabula; Matsuda, Nagare; Inagaki, Horie, Gu, Cornelsen, Fakatava, Leitch, Labuschagne, Himeno (capt)
Replacements: Lemeki for Masirewa (7), Riley for Naikabula (51), Saito for Nagare (65), Millar for Inagaki (50), Sakate for Horie (62), Ai Valu for Gu (41), Dearns for Fakatava (62), Shimokawa for Labuschagne (75).