Analysis: England go back to basics to find another gear

Eddie Jones laid out his manifesto for this England team four years ago when he took over.

Eddie Jones laid out his manifesto for this England team four years ago when he took over.

“England have traditionally been strong at the set-piece and had a bulldog defence. You don’t want to take that away” were his exact words at his unveiling back in 2015.

Well he certainly hasn’t taken them away. On the evidence of this brutally efficient display against the USA, those Red Rose traditional strengths are in full bloom.

The USA did not have a sniff in in Kobe on Thursday. Jones’ men, despite facing a four-day turnaround and with ten new faces in their starting XV, were relentless and ruthless.

The rolling maul yielded two first-half scores, their defence was suffocating throughout and they turned on the style late on to rack up seven tries in total.

With a rock-solid foundation like that, better teams than the USA are going to have to play very well to stop them at this World Cup.

Luke Cowan-Dickie’s first lineout of the day was an overthrow, missing Tom Curry at the back and wasting a chance to build an attack on the American line.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, that was about as false a dawn as you will ever see.

From then on, Jamie George’s understudy was perfect, George Kruis called the tune and Cowan-Dickie hit the right notes time after time.

But it is not just about finding your jumpers, Steve Borthwick has long been trying to bring England’s rolling maul game back to its best.

There were growing signs in the Guinness Six Nations that it was returning, Tom Curry’s score against Scotland springs to mind, and against Italy in the summer Ellis Genge got over at the back of another.

But on the biggest stage, it has really clicked into a higher gear. Three tries in two games have come from the maul and the second here in Kobe for Cowan-Dickie came from miles out, rolling inexorably to the line almost from the 22 as the Eagles defence splintered.

Throw in a scrum that milked penalties for fun, on their own ball and once on the Americans’, and the Friday review should make for pleasant reading for Borthwick and the boys.

When Bryce Campbell went over in the 81st minute for a late American consolation, that was the first try England had conceded in 248 minutes of Test rugby.

Italy, Tonga and then USA might not be the toughest opponents, the big boys lie in wait in Tokyo next month, but there is no doubting that John Mitchell’s well-drilled defence is thriving.

Indeed, on Thursday in Kobe, the Americans did not even manage a line break until the final five minutes.

Discipline was an issue against Tonga last week in Sapporo, and in the opening quarter in Kobe it looked like the problem was persisting.

But after giving away four penalties in the first 15 minutes, England did not blot their copybook again for the rest of the game.

Admittedly it helps when you enjoy near total dominance of possession and territory, but England’s foundation looks rock-solid right now.

USA head coach Gary Gold was not holding back in his assessment post-game.

He called it a ‘Kobe Calamity’ for his side, and singled out George Ford in particular as the master puppeteer.

Ford and Gold are well-acquainted of course after their time together at Bath, but Ford was named man of the match with good reason.

At the start of the second half he got greedy with a touch finder in the American 22 and kicked it dead. That was probably his first, and last, mistake of the game.

Captain for the day, his kicking from hand was exemplary. Time and again he won territory for his side, turned the American back three and gave his dominant pack something to chase.

He picked his moments well, scoring the first try with a scamper under the posts after spotting a hole in the American blitz and thereafter largely deferring to his pack in the first half.

But in the second stanza when the space opened up he was quick to exploit it, his long pass to Jonathan Joseph created Ruaridh McConnochie’s score that brought up the bonus point.

Jones trusts Ford implicitly, he is the player he has picked most often for his matchday 23 since taking over in 2015.

And after a spell on the bench at the back end of last year and start of this one, Ford is going to be hard to unseat at No.10 for the rest of this World Cup.

Not that long ago, Lewis Ludlam was nowhere near England’s radar.

But after a breakout season for Northampton, he is now front and centre in their back row and this, his first-ever World Cup start, was his best performance yet.

The Saint was ubiquitous on Thursday night, ending the game as England’s top tackler, their top carrier and a now for the first time, an international try-scorer.

His try was probably the easiest thing he did all night, falling over the line as part of an enormous England overlap down the left as the game broke up late on.

But there was nothing easy about the rest of Ludlam’s performance.

Wearing No.7 as Curry gets more game time in on the blindside, Ludlam led the linespeed in the opening quarter as England spluttered to start.

But once the pack began to purr, Ludlam showed up all over the pitch, beating defenders and chipping in a magnificently gritty breakdown turnover in the second half like all good opensides should.

He has a job on his hands to break into England’s first-choice back row at this World Cup.

The likes of Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola will take some shifting and that is without mentioning Mark Wilson, but Ludlam is clearly up for the battle.

Fitness issues have dogged this England squad since before they flew out to Japan.

Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell have been on the injured list since June, barring a Vunipola cameo in August against Ireland that prompted his hamstring problem to flare up again.

Henry Slade was not fit enough to be risked on Thursday either, while Jonathan Joseph had looked bellow 100 percent in Wednesday’s captain’s run.

But Joseph came through with flying colours on Thursday, Slade is back in contention for Argentina and, with a big session in the books for Nowell and Vunipola tomorrow, England suddenly could be selecting from a 31-man squad next week.

Joe Marler and Billy Vunipola were both withdrawn at half time, so total was England’s dominance.

The business end of the group stage is a great time to be coming to the boil. This England team might just be cooking up something special.