A tale of two Tests matches.
On Saturday evening, Ireland showed the relentless ferocity and accuracy required to topple the best team in the world.
A few hours earlier, England lacked exactly the same qualities as they stuttered to victory over Japan.
There is no glossing over it, England were poor. That would be the verdict had New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, or any other top-drawer international side been troubled by Japan for 55 minutes or so.
The visitors are tenacious, fit and have some fabulous individual skills, but are ultimately limited. They are not, or should not be, powerful enough in the tight and set-piece to trouble the best teams in the world.
Eddie Jones protested afterwards that he was happy to see his England team tested. There are certain amounts of spin that any head coach has to do and I am sure it would have been very different behind closed doors.
|England’s autumn Tests|
|3 November||Beat South Africa 12-11|
|10 November||Lost to New Zealand 16-15|
|17 November||Beat Japan 35-15|
He stressed the impact of England’s self-inflicted short preparation time and the changes he made in personnel.
That is no excuse for me. England don’t put out scratch sides any more. The Rugby Football Union handsomely compensate Premiership Rugby clubs to free up the players for all sorts of camps and get-togethers.
In addition, nearly three years into his England reign, there should be a certain style of play that is almost a reflex for Jones’ teams.
Jones himself outlined what England’s DNA should be – telling BBC Sport in October 2015 that a strong set-piece, strong defence and excellent discipline would be the basis of the national team.
They may make tweaks dependent on team changes and the opposition, but the key elements of their play should be ingrained and immutable regardless of who comes in.
Low errors and a low penalty count are the foundations for building Test-match pressure.
England gave away 12 penalties to Japan’s nine. They conceded 16 turnovers to Japan’s 13. Hooker Jamie George was sin-binned in the first half.
The best teams in the world just do not do that and, when the opposition do, they will convert that quantity of free ball to field position, points and victory.
Individually, there were disappointing afternoons for those fringe players hoping to stake a claim.
Saracens centre Alex Lozowski was making only his third start for England and his first in nearly a year, but was replaced at half-time.
He is a very talented all-round player, but that does not necessarily translate into the walking into a team and performing.
Henry Slade made his international debut in August 2015, but it is only in the past six months that he has established himself as a first-choice international midfielder.
Lozowski is going through a similar phase to Slade, struggling to get a foothold in the team. It is a shame, but I think he is good enough to get another opportunity.
Zach Mercer did not last much longer. The Bath number eight was replaced in the 49th minute. With England lacking front-foot momentum, he was perhaps trapped doing jobs that he is not best suited to.
He hardly had any carries in open field.
On a brighter note, Joe Cokanasiga did himself no harm at all. He has the size, strength and power to make yards or buy time for his support even in congested areas of the pitch.
That physicality is something that none of the other England wing options offer. He also showed good composure and awareness in England’s third-minute try.
Japan’s fly-half Yu Tamura prodded a kick over the top of England’s defensive line and towards the left touchline.
Crucially, though, the chase was fractured with only wing Akihito Yamada applying real pressure to Elliot Daly as the England full-back fielded the ball just outside his 22m.
Cokanasiga had worked hard to get himself in play, giving Daly a passing option and adding width to the counter-attack…
..as Daly drew his man and released the ball to Cokanasiga, hooker Jamie George, number eight Zach Mercer and scrum-half Danny Care all modified their movement to anticipate the wing gaining significant ground.
Cokanasiga didn’t let the adrenaline get the better of him, picking out Jamie George’s support line inside as fly-half Tamura came across to challenge him…
…and Care was just one of a clutch of England players queuing up to carry in the game’s opening score.
England could not maintain that clarity of thought and dynamism though.
It was noticeable that the introduction of some of England’s first-choice players in the second half improved the hosts’ variety and control.
There were too many simple one-out runners around the fringe in the first half that played into the hands of a Japan defence that was more committed than organised.
Here in the 55th minute, however, first receiver Kyle Sinckler had options off both shoulders.
The defence came up fast in his face, but the Harlequins prop showed deft hands to flick the ball onto Sam Underhill, changing the point of attack and making yards.
The combination generated quick front-foot ball for the next phase. Japan’s defence just about numbered up, but was stretched with full-back Will Tupou sprinting up from backfield to cover Cokanasiga and, crucially, George Ford able to run at space outside Michael Leitch.
With Japan number eight Kazuki Himeno unable to match Wilson’s effort on Ford’s inside, the Newcastle back row was able to run in unopposed as England finally regained the lead.
Jones will be pleased by those glimpses of quality, but they book-ended England’s most concerning period of play so far this autumn.
Over in Dublin…
In the aftermath of their defeat by Ireland in Chicago in 2016, New Zealand arrived in Dublin two weeks later and avenged the loss with a hugely physical performance.
Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa were shown yellow cards and Sam Cane was fortunate to escape serious punishment for a high hit on Robbie Henshaw as the Kiwis ground out a 21-9 win.
Ireland made sure that was not going to happen again.
Joe Schmidt’s side physically dominated the All Blacks for most of the game with a performance of exemplary details and cohesion.
It felt like the complete performance that Schmidt has been building towards since taking charge five years ago.
All the post-match talk was on whether Ireland had taken on the mantle of World Cup favourites and it was fitting that Jacob Stockdale’s match-winning try was straight out the All Black playbook.
Back on 27 October, New Zealand scored a try against Australia off a scrum as TJ Perenara and Kieran Read broke open before Beauden Barrett suddenly switched play to the blindside with a long pass to Rieko Ioane.
It was history repeating to see Bundee Aki spring Stockdale with a near-identical play.