Analysis: England’s counter-attacking class shines through tough Tonga test

If you had offered Eddie Jones this result before kick-off, he would have bitten your hand off.

If you had offered Eddie Jones this result before kick-off, he would have bitten your hand off.

A bonus-point win in their Pool C opener, four tries scored, none conceded and – most importantly – a clean bill of health heading to Kobe for the USA clash on Thursday.

Of course, this was a far from perfect performance with ill-discipline and handling errors slowing their momentum in the second half in particular.

But there were also plenty of positives to come out of the 35-3 victory, not the least the impressive form of their three-quarters.

Anthony Watson’s return to form and fitness in time for this World Cup has been a major boost for Jones.

One of the few bright spots in England’s World Cup campaign on home soil four years ago, Watson back then looked destined for the very top.

A serious Achilles injury early in the 2018 Guinness Six Nations has held him back however.

But, after carefully plotting his fitness course through the summer warm-ups, and scoring his first Test try in over 18 months against Italy, it was here that he proved he is back to his best.

Clearly the work in the gym with sprint coach Jonas Dodoo – who has also worked with Olympic champion Greg Rutherford – is paying off.

Despite almost nine months on the sidelines, Watson has lost none of his pace and retains that trademark swerving sidestep.

His second-half solo slalom from deep in his own half almost brought the try of the tournament so far.

Equally comfortable at full-back, it is most likely to be on the wing that Watson gets his chance for the Red Rose and here was proof that Jones has got the balance right.

Watson ended up as England’s top metre marker with nine carries for 117m including seven defenders beaten and two offloads tossed in for good measure.

But next to him, Elliot Daly looks to be cementing himself as a full-back of serious international class.

He made two clean breaks of his own – the step off his left to begin counter-attacks from deep are now his calling card, but it is the Saracens man’s distribution that is really making England hum.

Firing long passes off both hands, Daly is choosing his moments wisely to attack the line from No.15, fading behind George Ford to release Jonny May for Manu Tuilagi’s second.

With May in the form of his life, England have a back three that can rival the best in world rugby.

The All Blacks have shown for many a year that they can score tries from anywhere – and England are approaching that stratospheric level.

They had little quality ball to work with on Sunday as the two packs battered each other to a standstill, and yet they still managed to create something from nothing time and again.

It is hard to see how Joe Cokanasiga can break into Eddie’s first choice back three as it stands – that is mark of their strength.

But it is not all singing and dancing, their attention to the basics were also on show under the Sapporo Dome.

Their kick chase work has really come alive, inspired perhaps by Saracens’ pre-dominance in this area at club level.

Time and again England’s back three went up to compete for high balls and either re-gained or spoiled Tonga’s possession.

We will come onto England’s pack shortly, but staying in the backline, there is another man who merits closer inspection.

Manu Tuilagi’s first half was magnificent, and not just for the two tries he scored and six defenders he beat.

Slimmed down but no less powerful, the Samoan-born wrecking ball looks to be back to the sort of form that saw him burst onto the scene at the 2011 World Cup.

He looked nailed on to be England’s midfield monster for the next decade but fitness has cruelly deserted him in the interim and he missed out on England’s washout four years ago.

But he has been a near ever-present in 2019, first at inside centre for much of the Guinness Six Nations and now back in his preferred No.13 jersey this summer.

And it is here that Tuilagi does the most damage. One further out at 13 grants the Leicester Tiger more time and space and more often than not, weaker outside shoulders to run at.

And the stats bear this out, in three Test starts in 2019 at No.13 he has scored five tries, while in four starts at inside centre he has yet to cross the whitewash.

And with George Ford and Owen Farrell inside him, they have the option to use him as decoy when they see fit and release their flyers out wide.

Tuilagi’s first try was all brute force, carrying three defenders over the line to touch down from short range.

But his pace remains underrated, and the way he caught up with May to claim his inside ball for his second was perfect proof that the big man is, as Jones himself said afterwards, ‘nearly back to his best.’

Steve Borthwick’s review session with the forwards will pinpoint plenty of areas for improvement.

The numbers make for pretty reading with a perfect set-piece that saw them claim 14 lineouts from 14 and four scrums from four.

But the penalty count was not in their favour, they conceded ten penalties to Tonga’s nine and a number of them were needless.

Maro Itoje remains the pack’s focal point, and his turnover count was again through the roof on Sunday.

He pinched lineouts, he snaffled on the floor and only Tom Curry made more than his 15 tackles.

But Itoje and Kyle Sinckler were England’s two most penalised players and Jones will be desperate for his side to cut that out when the big boys in Pool C, France and Argentina, come to town.

The rolling maul has also re-appeared this summer as an attacking weapon for England.

On Sunday against Tonga they won easy metres once more, but it was only when mauling maestro George Kruis entered the fray that it yielded a try – Jamie George the recipient in the end.

Too many times, passes did not go to hand when England were knocking at the door.

Curry in the first half, and Tuilagi and Sam Underhill in the second were all guilty of taking their eye off the ball as the Tongan tacklers swarmed.

And it was clearly contagious, as when the cavalry arrived from the replacements bench in the second half England continued to let chances go to waste.

Henry Slade, admittedly in his first appearance since June, twice failed to find the final pass.

But the impact of Jonathan Joseph was impressive, and the duo will surely be back in action on Thursday against the USA in Kobe.

England will in all likelihood face a sterner test against the Americans, who are one of the most improved sides in the world over the last four-year cycle.

But it is a mark of where this England squad are going under Jones that class acts like Cokanasiga, Joe Launchbury and Mark Wilson are all chomping at the bit for their first action in Japan.