The Road to Yokohama: How England made the final

England v Tonga – Rugby World Cup 2019_ Pool C
Weeks before England’s Japanese adventure got started, Eddie Jones was reinforcing the same message over and over: A World Cup is a marathon and not a sprint.

Weeks before England’s Japanese adventure got started, Eddie Jones was reinforcing the same message over and over: A World Cup is a marathon and not a sprint.

It matters not if you play your best rugby at the start of the tournament, but you better be hitting top speed come the finish.

And on the eve of Saturday’s final against the Springboks, Jones’ men appear to have come to the boil at just the right time.

It all started five Sundays ago in Sapporo.

England got their Pool A campaign up and running in clinical – if understated – fashion.

Once Manu Tuilagi had crossed for a first-half double, his first World Cup tries since that ill-fated 2011 adventure in New Zealand, victory was always going to be theirs.

But Tonga proved a tough nut to crack, the tackle Zane Kapeli put on Billy Vunipola remains one of the shots of the tournament.

And it was only when Luke Cowan-Dickie crossed at the death that the Red Rose’s bonus point was secured.

Four tries scored, none conceded, five points in the bag and onto the next one. Job done for Jones and the boys.

England’s first real test therefore came four days later in Kobe.

The tight turnaround forced Jones to shuffle his deck, making ten changes in all to face a fresh American side looking to start their tournament in style.

But it was one of the five men retained in the starting XV, George Ford, that proved the star of the show.

The fly-half pulled the strings spectacularly as England brushed the Eagles aside in simple fashion.

Joe Cokanasiga bagged a second-half double, John Quill saw red for a late high hit on Owen Farrell and the Red Rose made light of the sweaty conditions under the roof at the Kobe Misaki Stadium to make it two from two and claim pole position in Pool C.

The England roadshow arrived in Tokyo at last for their biggest game of the pool stages against Argentina.

This was a Pumas side playing for their lives, defeat earlier to France meant they were effectively eliminated from the competition if they lost again.

Clearly fired up, the South Americans more than matched England in the early stages before Tomas Lavanini’s high shot on Farrell ended his evening inside 20 minutes.

From there, England were in cruise control.

They ran in six tries in all, Jonny May and Elliot Daly going over in the first half before Ben Youngs, Ford, Jack Nowell and Cowan-Dickie finished off the job.

England’s passage to the knockout rounds was now confirmed, the first team out in Japan to do so.

It had been smooth sailing up until now, but Typhoon Hagibis then rolled into town and forced their Pool C decider against France to be cancelled.

The typhoon allowed England to head back to their Miyazaki pre-tournament training base and put the hard yards in on the training paddock.

Mako Vunipola was now back in first-team action, bruised bodies could heal up and prepare for the knockout onslaught to come.

By contrast, Australia had to grind it out against Uruguay and then Georgia to confirm their passage to Oita for the first quarter-final of an enthralling weekend.

Michael Cheika’s side came roaring out of the blocks but, unlike the implosions of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations against Wales and Scotland, England rode the storm and hit back.

May’s opportunistic first-half double put Jones’ men in control, and while Marika Korobeite was on a one-man mission for the Wallabies, the Red Rose defence held firm.

Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson raced over in the second half as well to stretch the scoreline.

Jones had shifted Farrell to fly-half for the big game and his masterstoke paid off in style.

This was the best performance of the tournament by England, so far…

From the moment England fronted up to the All Black haka with Farrell at the head of their inverted V formation, you knew they meant business.

This was a performance of such controlled aggression by Jones’ men that the All Blacks simply had no response.

Indeed, the only surprise was that England didn’t win by more in the end.

Tuilagi’s try after only 98 seconds was the high point but Maro Itoje was incredible, Sam Underhill tackled everything that moved and the restored Ford in the No.10 shirt prodded and probed.

England barely missed a beat, even when Ardie Savea went over in the second half from a botched England lineout.

The Yokohama stadium was stunned, England had announced their arrival at the top of the world game.

Steve Hansen held his hands up afterwards, England had won this semi-final rather than the All Blacks losing it.

The two-time defending world champions were going home and England are now dreaming of an historic sequel against the Springboks on Saturday.