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There was to be no twist at Twickenham – England passed their first test of the autumn with aplomb. For all the unfortunate augurs of an uncertain Friday after Owen Farrell’s positive Covid test and the fear of further disruption, Saturday was all rather straightforward for England, crossing 11 times as they romped to an all too comfortable victory over Tonga.
Eddie Jones will enter a Test week against his native Australia with plenty about which to smile having received Sunday morning news to broaden the grin further. The positive test that had ruled Farrell out has now been declared false, and two more negative PCRs allow him to return with immediate effect to the England squad.
England, as expected, fizzled and crackled with attacking verve, giving the replenished Twickenham crowd, closer to capacity than one might have expected for such an affair, plenty of cause to rise to their feet. The definite conclusions will be reasonably slim from an encounter with an opposition that struggled to match England, particularly when dropping to 14 men thrice.
“I really enjoyed the mix of our team today,” concluded Jones. “I think we had an average age of about 25, which puts us in a good position to be around the peak prime age for the World Cup.
“We want the experienced players to show that they are prepared to dig deep and we want the young guys to show that they can step up. We saw a little bit of that today, but that will be tested more fully against Australia next week.”
There is a tendency to homogenise the Pacific Island nations but, while there are shared experiences, the population of Fiji is nine times that of Tonga – the island may provide more rugby players per capita than just about any other but with limited access to their players and under-funding they will always struggle to match a Tier One side, particularly short of several key players and a head coach.
Still, as first outings go, this was encouraging for a refreshed England able to do largely as they pleased. Having earned a late promotion after Farrell’s positive test, George Furbank was knitted in rather effectively to England’s attacking crochet, granted stable, swift ball against an opposition largely unable to trouble him.
Official confirmation internally came on Saturday morning of Farrell’s absence but Furbank, usually a full-back, had taken charge of the England attack at the captain’s run on Friday and combined well with his teammates.
He was helped greatly by Manu Tuilagi, back in an England shirt for the first time in 609 days and at his blunderbuss best, punching great cavities through which both Furbank and Henry Slade, who looked far more comfortable playing second and third fiddle than in England’s overly-lateral attack patterns of the last 12 months or so.
“I was pleased with him, particularly in the second half,” said a beaming Jones of Tuilagi. “The beauty of Manu [is] that he is able to straighten on the ball and create space for his outside men, so we are really pleased today with what we saw today. He is just so full of energy and so full of life.”
Then there was the arrival of Marcus Smith who is, by the indications of the prevailing chatter both pre and post-match, England’s new posterboy. Smith’s every mention and touch triggered a lifting of the crowd as England fans roared the frissons of an exciting future.
The game was long beyond doubt by the time he made his second-half entry but he cut vivid, familiar colours as the sun dipped behind the packed stands in setting England away in their rampant second half.
Jones has a tendency to try and ground his young players, regularly reminding them not to believe the hype. He warned Smith after the game to look to Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old US Open champion who has played only sparingly since, as a cautionary tale of how the “distraction” that success brings can be detrimental to a player.
Australia will represent a significant uplift in intensity, a team with a renewed purpose under Dave Rennie. With an attack now guided by former England offensive mastermind Scott Wisemantel, the Wallabies enjoyed a better Rugby Championship though have lost preferred 10-12 partnership Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi, who have returned, controversially, to their clubs in Japan.
“[Australia] are a team that are a very proud nation, a very confrontational team,” said Jamie George, twice a try-scorer from mauls as England showed their forward grunt to match the attacking sparkle.
“That’s the sort of challenge we love taking head on. We love playing against those guys. We’ve got a good record against them in the last few years but we are also very aware they are looking like a very different squad at the minute.”
Farrell’s availability will present a headache – each of Smith, Tuilagi, Slade and the England captain will surely merit a start in the mind of Jones. Having been so keen to see how Smith and Farrell combine he will be tempted to pair them with a clean training week, but would in doing so perhaps break up England’s most balanced midfield.
“As I said previously, it is very rare to get everyone available fit,” said Jones of any selection cephalalgias that may have been triggered. “If we have got options to select from, then that’s fantastic, and we want to have those options.”
Farrell’s status will now be the toughest conundrum for Jones ahead of a meeting with a side which he is particularly acquainted. The clues and keys to this “new England” were readily apparent in the captain’s absence, and player of the match Slade is the likeliest sacrifice if Jones decides the captain must return. An afternoon of few concrete learnings leaves Jones with one rather large question.