England edged closer to the last eight at the rugby union World Cup on Sunday night following a 34-12 victory over Japan at the Allianz Riviera in Nice.
The result with a bonus point leaves Steve Borthwick’s side a win away from securing a berth in the knockout stages from Group D. That success should be obtained next Saturday at the Stade Pierre Mauroy against World Cup debutants Chile.
And it will be hailed as a triumph. England entered the tournament on the back of a dreadful streak that had furnished them with only two wins from their nine games in 2023.
Fly-half George Ford orchestrated the 14-man 27-10 triumph over Argentina in the opening match in Marseille on 9 September by kicking all 27 points.
And the 30-year-old, who collected 14 points on Sunday night, was deemed man-of-the-match for executing a rugged and unenthralling kicking strategy.
“Delighted with another win,” he deapanned after he was presented with his trophy.
“A tough game. We knew it would be as Japan never give in.
“We had to change the way we attack to get the points we needed but there’s no frustration from our end. We know what it takes to win test matches. We’re two from two. But we’ve got to get better next week, and there’s more in us.”
Eleven handling errors told the grim story of the first-half in which Ford and his Japanese counterpart, Rikiya Matsuda, swapped penalties in the first 17 minutes and after the water break Matsuda knocked over another.
Bu Japan’s lead was fleeting. Kyle Sinckler snatched a loose ball at a line out near the Japanese five-metre line and though he could force his way through, Lewis Ludlam went over when the ball was recycled for the first try of the game.
Ford added the two points for a 10-6 lead after 30 minutes.
England’s indiscipline cost them straight away. Jonny May clattered into Lomano Lemeki late after the full-back kicked clear and a penalty was awarded from where the ball landed in England’s half.
A grateful Matsuda racked up his personal and Japan’s tally to nine points before Ford responded with another penalty on the stroke of half-time to send England into the break with a 13-9 lead.
After 14 gruelling minutes in the second-half, another penalty and another three points from Matsuda brought Japan to within a point.
But the game turned on a freak. As England were moving the ball to the left wing, it hit Will Stuart’s arm, bounced forward off Joe Marler’s head and into the grasp of Courtney Lawes who trotted over the line as the Japan players waited for the whistle for a knock-on. The try was confirmed by the video referees and England – despite their failure to impose creativity – had conjured up the unusual.
The after-effects of such sorcery were in evidence when Ford angled a kick cross field for Freddie Steward to pluck out of the air and touch down with a fluidity that had been absent from myriad passages of play.
Ford converted to effectively seal the contest. Joe Marchant’s try late on belied the struggle.
Earlier in Group C, Fiji created the first huge shock of the tournament with a 22-15 victory over Australia in Saint-Etienne.
“I’m emotionally drained,” said Simon Raiwalui, who took over as Fiji’s coach in February. “I couldn’t be prouder.”
Such a result had been in the offing though. In the prelude to the World Cup, Fiji won the Pacific Nations Cup, ran France close and beat England at Twickenham in the warm-ups.
“I told the boys, today is our final,” said skipper Waisea Nayacalevu. “Today will determine whether we want to go up to the quarters, so the mindset was do or die, do our best, fight to the end and the result will take care of itself.”
Reigning champions South Africa brooked no such catastrophe. They pulverised Romania 76-0 in Bordeaux.
Originally published on RFI