England sharpen edges just in time for glamour game with New Zealand

Freddie Steward (second right) celebrates scoring England’s first try against Japan (Getty)
Freddie Steward (second right) celebrates scoring England’s first try against Japan (Getty)

Owen Farrell smiled politely, grateful for the kind gift, though conceding he had little idea what he would do with the samurai sword. In recent years, Japan have taken to presenting a ceremonial katana to the opposition captain, a memento to mark the occasion: “It’s better than a tie and a pin,” quipped defeated head coach Jamie Joseph.

Perhaps Eddie Jones will have an idea or two for his captain. Feeling his side were short of belief ahead of the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in 2019, Jones employed an antique blade of his own for a symbolic chopping of a kiwi fruit.

“You could say it was cheesy, rather than fruity, but I used the samurai sword to scythe them in two,” Jones revealed in his book Leadership: Lessons from My Life in Rugby. “The blade was so sharp that the kiwi fruits split apart in an instant.

“‘There you go, boys,’ I said. ‘See how we do it now?’” The message got through; England produced a superlative performance to reach the final.

England did not quite cut Japan fully to pieces but the edges that appeared so dull against Argentina looked significantly keener. In truth, the opposition was meeker than anticipated, the Brave Blossoms unable to find any solidity of structure upon which they could paint their intricate pattern. While Japan were off their game – with Joseph believing the occasion got to some of the more inexperienced members of his side – this was a major step back in the right direction for the home side.

“We weren’t good enough against Argentina, we were better this week and we want to get better next week,” said Jones. “I thought our attack was generally posing problems to the Japanese defence and defensively we were pretty good, so it’ll just be the nuances of what we’re doing.”

Having promised to play with more freedom, there were venturous glimpses from England, greater avidity for a counterattack and accuracy when the scoring chances came. While Marcus Smith is still striving for consistency, his combination with Owen Farrell threatened throughout, Freddie Steward the early try-scoring beneficiary of the pair’s playmaking partnership.

The vagaries of Jones’s selections mean little is certain a year out from the World Cup, but the Australian is fond of his young spine of Smith, Steward and Jack van Poortvliet. The latter pair were excellent against Japan, the full-back’s aerial command and scrum-half’s service ensuring England remained in control throughout.

Steward and Van Poortvliet are great mates, reared as part of an outstanding generation of Tiger cubs at Leicester that claimed back-to-back Academy League crowns in 2018 and 2019. That long-established relationship was clear as the young No 9 arrived with perfect timing in an open alleyway to collect his teammate’s offload out the side door in the build-up to Smith’s first score.

England were 52-13 winners against Japan after a narrow loss to Argentina (Getty)
England were 52-13 winners against Japan after a narrow loss to Argentina (Getty)

“I’ve been playing rugby with Jack since we were eight years old, so I’d like to think that by now we’ve got that [good] partnership,” said the imperious Steward, so assured just 12 months into his international career and at the heart of most of what England did well.

“When you’re running out at Twickenham and you have 80,000 fans around you screaming and the ball goes in the air, it’s quite a daunting experience. A lot of it is the mindset that I’ve had to work on. I’ve been working really hard on the physical side of the game, the power, the strength, the speed, and it’s good to see that paying dividends. I had a lot of ball, and it’s always nice when things fall your way.”

England know the intensity will ratchet up again with New Zealand in town – Saturday’s meeting will be just the third under Jones. That scarcity means it is a fixture that retains a certain glamour and mystique. The 2022 All Blacks may not be a classic vintage but many in the England panel will recall the regnant New Zealand of the last 15 years. Steward believes overcoming any initial awe will be key.

“The All Blacks, as a young lad who’s watched rugby his whole life, are the team you want to play against,” said the 21-year-old. “To be able to face the haka and things like that is just so exciting. I’ll probably need to get over that in the week so, come gameday, I am in a position where I am ready to perform.

“It’s important not to get caught up in that aura of their history and their success and just treat it as just another game. We’ll work out what we did well and what we didn’t do well this weekend, put it right and put together a plan to beat them.”