NICE, France (AP) — England wore down Japan then used a bizarre try to play unrestrained and roll to 34-12 for a second straight victory at the Rugby World Cup on Sunday.
With Japan trailing only 13-12 nearing the hour mark, the odd try gave England breathing space.
Flyhalf George Ford’s pass glanced off prop Will Stuart’s arm backwards and ricocheted forwards off prop Joe Marler’s mohawk into the grateful hands of captain Courtney Lawes who strolled in between the posts. Ford's conversion made it 20-12.
“I thanked him (Marler). A bit of luck, sometimes it falls in your favor. I’ll take it,” said Lawes, who acknowledged England was not fluent. “Conditions were pretty tough to move the ball in, but you saw in parts what we can do. Hopefully by the time it comes to the quarterfinals we’ll be able to stick it. We’ll need to.”
Moments after his try, Japan cut through England's defense but knocked on with the line in sight and momentum was lost. England's third try followed, when Ford sent a clever crosskick from right to left and fullback Freddie Steward caught it and twisted over in the 66th.
But not until the cusp of fulltime did England deliver the bonus-point fourth try. Good work from right winger Jonny May finished with center Joe Marchant diving across.
“They’re a great team, Japan, they challenge you in different ways,” Ford said. “We knew it wouldn’t be until the third or fourth quarter until we could potentially pull away a bit. I’m just over the moon to get another win.”
Japan coach Jamie Joseph focused on the positives.
“We created a lot of opportunities, we just made too many mistakes," he said. "England put us under a lot of pressure but there were times I thought it was a real arm wrestle, we just needed to capitalize on those opportunities and we couldn’t."
Coach Steve Borthwick's England is not playing well and kicking too much, but is in pole position to win Pool D.
England's first try in the 24th minute, thanks to more fluky touches, went to No. 8 Lewis Ludlam. He was one of three changes by Borthwick to the side which beat Argentina 27-10 with 14 men for nearly the whole game following Tom Curry's red card. Ford scored all of England's points then and added 14 more against the Brave Blossoms.
Ford and opposite flyhalf Rikiya Matsuda traded early penalties, either side of Japan fullback Semisi Masirewa limping off injured after being clobbered kicking away.
Humid conditions in southern Nice frazzled the thinking and Ford claimed mitigating circumstances: Slippery hands.
“It’s really hard to play with the ball in these conditions,” he said. “These late kickoffs, the ball is greasy.”
An England offside nearly led to a try when Japan kicked ahead but knocked on. Still, Matsuda's penalty put Japan 9-8 ahead.
A Ford kick pinned them back, Japan botched its own lineout catch and slapped the ball to England, and Ludlam burrowed over for a converted score.
After Matsuda closed the gap following a sloppy error by May, the steady boot of Ford to put the Red Roses 13-9 up.
A scrappy start to the second half saw little to suggest England or Japan would spark their attacking game.
It was attritional and gritty, with kickers ticking the scoreboard along. Matsuda's fourth penalty made it a one-point game once more with 25 minutes to play.
Then came the bizarre Lawes try that changed the game.
Flanker Michael Leitch broke Japan’s record with his 15th Rugby World Cup game, but otherwise they had little to cheer.
The immediate schedule for Japan's players when their tired bodies arise on Monday?
Chilling in the sun.
“We’ve been going since June," Joseph said. “So I’m sure a couple of days in the south of France, the boys will enjoy them.”
AP Rugby World Cup: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby