England vs Japan: Five talking points ahead of Twickenham Test
Following an agonising defeat to New Zealand last weekend, England host Japan at Twickenham on Saturday in their latest autumn international.
It will only be the second official Test match between the two sides after England claimed a 60-7 victory over Japan in Sydney during the inaugural Rugby World Cup back in 1987.
The two sides also met five times prior to that clash before the Japan Rugby Football Union earned full Test status, including a 39-12 defeat for Japan at HQ in 1986.
Here are five talking points ahead of Saturday’s clash, live on Sky Sports Action and Main Event from 2.30pm…
Jones has no time for nostalgia
This weekend’s game will be the first time England head coach Eddie Jones has encountered Japan since stepping down as the Brave Blossoms’ head coach in 2015 in the wake of their headline-grabbing performance at the last Rugby World Cup.
Jones orchestrated a memorable campaign, including a famous 34-32 victory over South Africa, and they would go on to make history as the first side to win three pool games but not progress to the knock-out stage.
England vs Japan
November 17, 2018, 2:30pm
In the wake of that historic high, arguably the greatest upset in international rugby history, Jones opted for a fresh coaching challenge with the Stormers in South Africa that lasted only a matter of days before England came calling.
Current Japan boss Jamie Joseph is now tasked with repeating those heroics on home soil when the world comes to play in 2019.
Another coach tackling familiar opposition will be England forwards coach Steve Borthwick who fulfilled the same role for Japan working under Jones for much of his six-year tenure.
In the lead-up to Saturday, however, Jones has offered less than a warm welcome to his old friends, promising to “smash” the visitors and urging them to “go to the temple and pray” ahead of their showdown.
Can Japan mix it with the best?
With less than a year to the World Cup, Japan are under increasing pressure to fuel the dreams of an expectant host nation.
Those hopes were lit on that famous day in 2015 and a tournament draw that will see them tackle Ireland, Scotland, Samoa and Russia has only fanned that expectation.
Recent victories over Georgia and Italy, along with a draw with France – a game they could have won but for a missed conversion – certainly indicate they are capable of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, which must be their main goal and the hope of the tournament organisers.
However, a 69-31 hammering at the hands of New Zealand on home soil illustrated how far they still have to go and a similar result against England would do little to shift tickets for the sport’s showpiece event.
Respectability is likely to be their main target in their penultimate game of the year, with a date against Russia awaiting next weekend before the dawn of the biggest year in the country’s rugby history.
Opportunity beckons for Cokanasiga
Bath powerhouse wing Joe Cokanasiga was handed an England call-up on his 21st birthday as Jones announced 11 changes to his starting side on Thursday.
Fiji-born flyer Cokanasiga – his full name is Ratu Josateki Tuivanuavou Waqanivalu Cokanasiga – takes over on the right wing from Chris Ashton, who shifts across to take over from Jonny May on the left wing.
Cokanisiga, who is 1.95m and 110 kilos, moved to England with his parents when he was just three. He began his rugby career with London Irish before moving to Bath this season where he has put in some blockbuster performances.
“I don’t think we should put too much pressure on him, but certainly he’s a player of great promise,” Jones told Sky Sports when asked about Cokanasiga.
“We’ve had him around the squad for the last two years, he deserves his opportunity – he’s worked really hard at his game and we’re excited about him playing on Saturday.
“He’s got pace, he’s got power, and he’s got the ability to find the line; they’re three pretty important characteristics for a winger.”
What are England’s targets?
For some of the players, such as Cokanasiga, the goal will be to stake a claim to a jersey ahead of England’s trip to Japan in September.
But what will Jones hope to see from his team in a collective sense on Saturday? Set-piece consistency will be one of the key areas of improvement identified by the Australian.
Against New Zealand last week, the lineout faltered badly in the second half, with five lineouts lost on the Jamie George throw – though the hooker cannot take the sole blame for it as Brodie Retallick caused serious havoc on behalf of the visitors.
Against South Africa the week before, the England pack won a penalty by getting the better of the Springbok scrum in the 72nd minute, allowing Owen Farrell to kick his side into a one-point lead.
However, three minutes later the England forwards were splintered by the opposition, and England could have lost the game had Handre Pollard not seen his penalty attempt shave the wrong side of the upright.
In all, England’s set-piece has not been poor, but it equally has not been a solid platform for the team, and Jones will want to see more consistency in that area from his side on Saturday.
50 up for Ford
With co-captains Dylan Hartley and Farrell on the bench, George Ford has been tasked with leading England onto the field on Saturday – and it will be an especially important day as he wins his 50th Test cap.
“All I’d say is when you get your first cap for England, it’s an unbelievable moment. It’s an honour and a privilege and to get one is special – you never dream of getting 50,” Ford said.
“I’m massively excited. It’s going to be a proud day but the most important thing is we step forward as a team and we get back on winning terms.”
Despite reaching the milestone, Ford will remain purely focused on putting in a solid performance against the Japanese, having lost the No 10 jersey to Farrell this autumn. The pair previously played together in a 10-12 capacity, but in the last three Tests Jones has opted for Danny Cipriani and Farrell at fly-half.
With just 10 months remaining ahead of the 2019 World Cup, Ford will want to give Jones a strong reminder of what he offers the team when pulling the strings.
England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Jack Nowell, 12 Alex Lozowski, 11 Chris Ashton, 10 George Ford (c), 9 Danny Care, 1 Alec Hepburn, 2 Jamie George, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Charlie Ewels, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Courtney Lawes, 7 Mark Wilson, 8 Zach Mercer.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ted Hill, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Henry Slade.
Japan: 15 Willam Tupou, 14 Akihito Yamada, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 1 Keita Inagaki, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 3 Jiwon Koo, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 5 Uwe Helu, 6 Michael Leitch (c), 7 Masakatsu Nishikawa, 8 Kazuki Himeno.
Replacements: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Samuela Anise, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 22 Yutaka Nagare, 23 Rikiya Matsuda.
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