CHRIS FOY: England will tackle the threat of Japan with care and caution… the Brave Blossoms have a history of upsets so Steve Borthwick’s side know they can’t take their eye of the ball
- Japan are the global market leaders when it comes to providing shock upsets
- But England are on high alert after their pre-tournament defeat to Fiji at home
- Two wins from two would all but confirm a place in the quarters for Red Roses
- Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results
From a seemingly bleak position just three weeks ago, England can all but assure themselves of quarter-final qualification here on Sunday, but they will be wary of Japan’s renowned reputation-wreckers and scalp-takers.
Steve Borthwick’s team won’t be casting their glances ahead to the knock-outs, but that is where they will be heading if they overcome the Brave Blossoms in this holiday hot-spot by the Mediterranean.
Victory in their second Pool D fixture will effectively clinch a place in the last eight, as the result against Chile in Lille six days later is a foregone conclusion.
However, this fixture is being approached with suitable care and caution. Borthwick and his players won’t underestimate the Japanese, given their recent World Cup pedigree. In 2015, when the England head coach was part of their management team, the Far East nation stunned South Africa in Brighton. Four years later, as hosts, they beat high-ranking Ireland and Scotland on the way to a quarter-final amid growing national hysteria.
Here’s another factor worth bearing in mind. There hasn’t been a major upset at this tournament yet, but after Uruguay gave France an almighty fright on Thursday night, all the leading nations will be on their guard. Many countries outside the game’s cosy establishment pose a significant threat these days and Japan are global market leaders in that regard.
The Brave Blossoms are more the capable of pulling off an upset and England will have to be on guard when the two sides meet
But England are on high alert after their shock defeat to Fiji in their tournament warm-up ties
Steve Borthwick (left) warned that Japan are a team used to rising to the occasion when featuring the World Cup
England cannot fall into the trap of thinking they did the hard part by putting away Argentina in their opener. They are on alert, partly because of the shock to their system last month, when Fiji stormed the ramparts at Twickenham and earned a famous win. Joe Marler – reinstated in the starting XV at loosehead prop – explained how that grim ordeal perversely helped to ensure that there won’t be any complacency now.
Asked if it would be a challenge to maintain focus and intensity when faced with opponents they are expected to beat, he said: ‘There might have been, had we not already faced that challenge in playing a Fijian side who were ranked below us at the time and that we were expected to beat, and we didn’t.
‘That result and going through that experience has teed us up perfectly. On paper, we’re expected to beat this side but we’re not looking at it like that because as soon as you do, you come unstuck like we did against Fiji.’
Expectation levels have shot up. There was none of it last week, but there is plenty now, after England dispatched the Pumas so emphatically with 14 men. That was performance base camp, now for the long climb towards a distant summit. They must rise fast. Time is short. Others are already on the upper slopes, so Borthwick’s men are in frantic catch-up mode.
Last week, they were widely regarded as underdogs. Not this time. They are clear favourites. Just look at the obvious omens. England beat Japan 52-13 last November, scoring seven tries in the process – although only four of that starting team will be on duty here on Sunday.
They have won all three past encounters with these Asian rivals, although in 2018 they were trailing at half-time at Twickenham but went on to win 35-15, in what was dubbed their ‘black hole’ game as certain players such as Alex Lozowski and Zach Mercer haven’t been capped since.
Japan have been struggling of late, though. Notably, they lost to fellow Pool D team Samoa in Sapporo during the summer’s Pacific Nations Cup. Jamie Joseph is stepping down as head coach after this tournament and there has been a sense of stagnation. Japan go into this game down in 14th in the World Rugby rankings, while England climbed to sixth with their 27-10 win over Argentina.
Borthwick and his staff have been preparing players for a different set of problems compared to those posed by the Pumas. ‘Kev (Sinfield) has described them as like Barcelona, with “tiki-taka”,’ said Marler. ‘There’s a lot of movement on the ball. They look like a really impressive team when they move the ball. We are expecting plenty of that at the weekend.’
Borthwick helped Eddie Jones to lay the foundations for Japan’s emergence as a force and he added: ‘They are a team who are physically very fast and agile and have great fundamental skills. Their ball moves fast and that poses a lot of challenges for your defence and about how you play the game, particularly at the start of the game.
‘I thought Japan were excellent in the 2015 World Cup and they were even better in the 2019 World Cup. This is a team used to performing at World Cups. We know these guys are a very good side with an experienced coaching team. most of the coaching team has been there eight years now, working with them. There’s a huge amount of continuity.’
Joe Marler (right) said that Japan had been compared to Barcelona and their ‘tiki-taka’ style
England will hope that Japan’s air of stagnation plays in their favour during Sunday’s match-up
England are edging closer to having Owen Farrell back in their side as his suspension runs out
In truth, no amount of continuity should save them from an English eclipse tomorrow. The campaign launch event was such a stirring success that the impact on morale and belief should be profound. England know they have to add some layers to their modest repertoire, but they do so from a strong position and without deviating too far the staples which served them so well in Marseille; swarming defence, set-piece dominance and canny kicking.
It certainly helps that the heavy fitness-training load over the summer camp — the sheer scale of which wasn’t made apparent at the time — is paying off now, when it matters.
Borthwick will hope that his stalwarts rise to this occasion as well as they did for the last one, when the likes of captain Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, George Ford and Manu Tuilagi were so influential and imperious.
Next week, when Owen Farrell is available again, changes of selection and strategy will be in order ahead of a low-key assignment against Chile, but by then England should have two wins from two, command over their pool and thunderous momentum.
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