England player ratings live from Stade de Nice: First, the good news on a balmy night on the French Riviera; England eventually won 34-12 to chalk up back-to-back victories for only the second time in this underwhelming Steve Borthwick era, while they also managed to avoid card trouble and keep 15 players on the pitch for the full 80.
Now for the bad: You could spend every minute of an entire week watching tiki-taka Japan play with their brilliant sense of adventure and their willingness to put the ball through the hands and run.
It didn’t work out, the greasy ball ultimately leading to multiple handling errors that frustratingly stopped them dead in their tracks in a performance that didn’t feature a try.
However, they produced a lovely brand worthy of admiration from a global audience that would have tuned in from around the world. In contrast, hard-pressed England fans will be delighted they have a six-day break before they have to tune in again to see their team in action versus Chile.
On an evening where England needed to throw off some shackles to build on last weekend’s 14-man underdog win over Argentina in Marseille, they were infuriatingly blunt and that lack of creativity was roundly booed by the crowd around the 50th-minute mark when Alex Mitchell tamely kicked away possession rather than look to create with a pass or a run.
At that stage, English nerves were frayed as they had failed to build on a 13-9 interval lead that featured a Lewis Ludlam try and within minutes of the chorus of boos, the margin was cut to one by a penalty and the smell in the air was of a 2015 Springboks, 2019 Ireland-type ambush by the Japanese.
What averted a crisis result for Borthwick was typical of their inability to fashion polished try chances, the ball getting flapped at by sub Will Stuart and then headed forward by Joe Marler in a comic manner for skipper Courtney Lawes to score under the posts.
That caper became the result-deciding score, giving England invaluable breathing space but they were made to wait until the clock was in the red to secure the bonus point, Joe Marchant touching down long after Freddie Steward had pounced on 66 minutes. Here are the England player ratings:
15. Freddie Steward – 6.5
Endured a heart-in-mouth flutter when his flap at a kick in behind nearly gave Japan a first-half try. He got his head back up after that and he kept it up despite knocking on trying to burst a line early in the second period and that doggedness was eventually rewarded. It was his catch on halfway that secured the possession that led to the decisive England try from Lawes, and he then added a sweet score of his own with another fine catch.
14. Jonny May – 4
Not a game for wingers. When is it ever in the Borthwick era? Didn’t feature in the opening half apart from a leap to cover a Japan cross-kick that went into touch and then a late clip on a clearing kicker that gave the opposition a scored penalty from where the ball landed. Had one second-half break ended by a stern pull on his shorts.
13. Joe Marchant – 5.5
Came into this as one of England’s most consistent performers these past few months, but he wasn’t noticeable for a long period. Came into it better in the closing 20 minutes and finished with the bonus point try with the clock in the red.
12. Manu Tuilagi – 5
Took an age for him to feature with England’s attack offering crumbs and Japan’s flexible approach when they were in possession avoiding his channel. Gave way on 69 for Ollie Lawrence.
11. Elliot Daly – 4
Cagey start which featured getting a hospital pass from Ford that saw him bundled into touch. Then spilled possession with an England attack entering the 22 and was rarely noticed afterwards.
10. George Ford – 8
Having rated a 10/10 last weekend in Marseille for his scruff-of-the-neck display with England a red-carded man down after three minutes, the shackles were very much clamped back on here and Japan had him in their sights as evident in the charged down clearance kick from a first-half scrum. Wasn’t adverse to running with the ball but kicking was the primary approach, the tactic paying off with the sweet assist for the Steward score.
9. Alex Mitchell – 6
Impressive against Argentina when he brought unpredictability to the proceedings, he was way more measured here and it was his 50th-minute kicking away of possession that rankled with the booing crowd. His passing was solid but much more was wanted from his 59-minute display.
1. Joe Marler – 6
One of three changes to the XV from last week, he started well as it was his turnover penalty that put a positive end to Japan’s first visit to the 22. Joint top of his team’s first-half tackle count but them missed a few after that. He also had the bizarre assist with his head for the Lawes try. Another 59-minute effort.
2. Jamie George – 7.5
Showed his experience with some decent throwing such as over the top to Ben Earl five metres from his own line when the score was three-all. Butchered a chance down the other end when an inaccurate Earl pass was fumbled when he looped around at the lineout after Ford went for the corner shortly before the break. Helped England avoid a second-half crisis, his importance being underlined by how he played for 75 minutes.
3. Kyle Sinckler – 5.5
His first start since the Six Nations was about him bringing something to the party different from the rejuvenated Dan Cole but he had an ineffective first half. Improved in the second, his passes to Ford and Lawes catching the eye, but he was hooked on 51 minutes with the result in the melting pot.
4. Maro Itoje – 6.5
His fingers were crucial in the lineout steal that got England their opening try from a fluffed Japanese set-piece, He enjoyed some carries, something that hasn’t been a feature of his game of late, and, like George, he ensured England didn’t panic when things looked sticky in the second half.
5. Ollie Chessum – 6
Should have been the try scorer on 24 minutes but was held short, Ludlam instead finishing the move. He mauled well throughout and got about the place, but it was his failure to roll away a 53rd-minute ruck that allowed Japan to close to 13-12 and leave English nerves briefly jangling. Played for 75.
6. Courtney Lawes – 8
The second England player we gave a 10 to last weekend along with Ford, it was inevitable that those heights wouldn’t be fully matched here, yet his presence was defining as he scored the decisive try on 56 minutes and put himself about the place smartly.
7. Ben Earl – 8
Gave Japan their opening six points with penalty infringements but he was his team’s main ball carrier and tackler on a night where he will have learned much about cup tie rugby at Test level. His break down the tramline was crucial in the lead-up to the Lawes try.
8. Lewis Ludlam – 5.5
Produced a voracious work rate last week off the bench but it was a different story starting. Did score England’s opening try but his usual energetic effort didn’t fully materialise and he was hooked on 51.