England look to make amends against Japan after autumn internationals false start

Owen Farrell and Eddie Jones aim to get England’s campaign up and running at Twickenham  (AFP via Getty Images)
Owen Farrell and Eddie Jones aim to get England’s campaign up and running at Twickenham (AFP via Getty Images)

Among the elements of Japanese culture that Eddie Jones has brought with him to the England head coaching role is the concept of misogi, a Shinto practice of ritual purification designed to refocus the mind, cleanse oneself of ills and re-establish harmony with everything around you. For his England side, this has generally taken the form of water-based physical activity and team-building, an effort to wipe the slate clean and unite the squad at the start of each campaign.

Perhaps England find themselves in need of fresh purification this week. While there were some positives to take from the loss to Argentina, an opening defeat and some all-too familiar failings left those leaving an inanimate Twickenham with an air of despondency, the first signs of autumn uninviting. A six-day gap between games left little time for deep contemplation – which Owen Farrell believes might be beneficial to his side.

“It’s obviously a short turnaround, which I think is good for us this week,” said the England captain ahead of Saturday’s encounter with Japan. “We’ve addressed things we need to address from the game, but not with a lingering sense to it.

“We don’t want to overthink going into this weekend, which maybe we were guilty of a little bit [against Argentina]. Eddie set the tone with that when we got back together.”

And so into the second week of the autumn with another Jones mea culpa and a squad focused on making amends against Japan. England had the territory, possession and initial thrust to cut Argentina regularly a week ago but fell short in the 22, perhaps letting self-doubt and prosaism rule. The message has been one of releasing the shackles and playing with greater freedom and calm once the chances appear.

“It’s finishing those chances off for me that was the work-on going into this week,” explained Farrell, again leading England as he wins a 99th cap. “Being a bit calmer after we do make the breaks and seeing where the opportunity is thereafter.

“It’s not like we didn’t create opportunities in the conditions, but obviously we weren’t good enough to finish them off. I thought good decisions were made throughout. We have got to work hard to just keep getting better and freeing ourselves up more.”

Having begun with a defeat, this game takes on even greater importance with New Zealand and South Africa to come. There is, then, little experimentation from Jones, though Manu Tuilagi’s workload is being carefully managed, necessitating a change at outside centre, with a fit-again Guy Porter back in the side after making his debut in Australia in the summer.

It is a side picked with an emphasis on pace, with Sam Simmonds preferred to Billy Vunipola at eight and Jones hoping that Jack van Poortvliet provides more snap as the starting scrum-half. After a year of woeful injury and illness luck, Jonny May is deemed sharp enough to return on the wing, while Dave Ribbans makes a debut in the second row.

England have prepared carefully for the threat of an imaginative Japanese attack, with Farrell stressing the need to stay vigilant and be “ready for anything” against Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown’s nonconformists. The Brave Blossoms’ sharp wide play draws the eye, but they have shown against France and New Zealand that they also now have the forward might to match top sides up front.

Many of the longer-tenured members of the England squad will recall the bloody nose they were given by Japan in the first half of the 2018 meeting between the two sides, with Jack Nowell suggesting this week that they did not give their opposition the “respect they deserved”. There is little prospect of that happening again, but this is an improved Japan.

England will be sure to give Japan more respect than in their 2018 meeting (Getty Images)
England will be sure to give Japan more respect than in their 2018 meeting (Getty Images)

“They’ve become a lot more orthodox,” Jones said of his former charges’ evolution under Joseph. “Just look at their Tests against France [in July] – they had a heavier pack than the French team. If you have a pack that is heavier than France’s, you have a pretty heavy pack. It’s not like the Japanese team that I had – it’s a different version of it.”

With Japan having come close to beating the All Blacks two weeks ago, Joseph is confident his team can push England. “We are just excited about the match. It’s a big game for us, playing England at Twickenham. It’s one of rugby’s biggest challenges for a player, so that’s what we are excited about. I don’t think anybody expects us to win that game, but we’ve got 23 guys who are very motivated to do well.”

Scotland vs New Zealand

The old expression about the Forth Bridge comes to mind when considering the relationship between Finn Russell and Gregor Townsend, the burning and rebuilding of bridges becoming more and more regular between two of Scotland’s favourite fly-halves over the years. The prodigal son is back among things for the visit of the All Blacks.

Scotland came mighty close to beating New Zealand four years ago, but any repeat showing will require their forwards to muscle up in a manner Wales did not a week ago. Data from Opta shows that New Zealand played a simple gameplan in Cardiff, with less than 3 per cent of their play wider than the second receiver – if Scotland cannot halt their opponents in the tight channels they might face a fate similar to that of the Welsh.

Wales vs Argentina

Wales, meanwhile, host an Argentina side that has sometimes struggled to back up its biggest wins with repeat performances. Michael Cheika’s squad is unchanged as he seeks another major feather in his cap.

With Dan Biggar injured and Alun Wyn Jones dropping out of the 23, Wayne Pivac will be hoping a new leader or two can emerge during this autumn campaign. Against an outstanding Argentina back row, Justin Tipuric needs a big performance after a tough start to life as captain.

Ireland vs Fiji

With cohesion a key driver of Ireland’s success over the last two years or so, a game against Fiji offers Andy Farrell a crucial opportunity to explore the depth of his wider squad. It looks a smart selection from the head coach to face a side that caused Scotland significant trouble in the opening 40 minutes last weekend, newer faces mixed in with more experienced names. As ever, Joey Carbery’s performance will be heavily inspected, even if Johnny Sexton is expected to be back from a dead leg against Australia.

France vs South Africa

The game (and atmosphere) of the weekend should be at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, with France’s entertainers taking their party south as they bid to continue an unbeaten year. Fabien Galthie’s side made plenty of errors against Australia but managed to find a way to win, a recurring quality of this team.

South Africa provide a different sort of challenge, with France’s tight five likely to be tested physically. With Paul Willemse injured and Romain Taofifenua a bench specialist, the French second row of Cameron Woki and Thibaud Flament looks concerningly lightweight. Both starting fly-halves, Romain Ntamack and Damian Willemse, will have to better shaky showings last weekend.