Job done, but it wasn’t pretty, until the closing stages. England won another game, but they didn’t win many hearts and minds. They have one foot in the World Cup quarter-finals, but a lot of work to do.
The good news for the national team is that they kept 15 players on the field for a change. They also earned a bonus point by scoring four World Cup tries, courtesy of Lewis Ludlam, Courtney Lawes, Freddie Steward and Joe Marchant.
But prior to a late flourish, their cautious approach made for a dreary spectacle and their supporters grew so frustrated after half-time that they started booing when England players kicked the ball away, time and time again.
Hours after Fiji illuminated the tournament with their glorious play in St Etienne, this was rugby of a very different kind, not that the victors will care in the slightest.
This was all about pragmatism and programmed systems and dogged persistence. It was supposed to be about substance over style, which is fair enough, but a torrent of errors and infringements undermined the meticulous, rigid game-plan until some fleeting last-quarter flashes of cohesion and class.
England moved to the top of pool D as they recorded back-to-back Rugby World Cup wins with a 34-12 victory over Japan
Courtney Lawes scored a third try for England in bizarre circumstances against Japan
Both teams decided to kick regularly throughout the encounter in a match that lacked fluency
It summed up the messy, disjointed proceedings when England’s second try came via a fumble and a ricochet off the head of Joe Marler. They all count, but the attack remains at a formative stage.
At least the training-ground graft can go on from a strong position at the top of Pool D, with a formality against Chile to come on Saturday in Lille.
There is every chance for Steve Borthwick’s side to qualify in first place, but there was fresh evidence here that they remain a long way adrift of the title favourites, France, South Africa and Ireland.
And if Fiji are the team they meet in the last eight; that could be an uncomfortable occasion too, with the ghosts of a Twickenham defeat last month still haunting English minds.
The review back up north at the team base in Le Touquet will surely identify Ben Earl’s rampaging efforts as the primary source of satisfaction. Saracens’ back-rower was an energetic, influential presence. Earl has emerged as a key figure after so long on the fringes and the 25-year-old deserves to retain his starting place when Tom Curry is recalled after a ban.
Before that, the focus in the coming days will be on the reintegration of Owen Farrell. The captain is bound to be selected to face Chile, but the question is what number he will wear.
While George Ford was not quite as imperious as he had been in the 27-10 victory over Argentina in Marseille eight days earlier, the Sale fly-half was named Man of the Match again and he deserves to retain his place at 10 when the first-choice XV are next assembled, against Samoa in Lille on October 7.
But England’s midfield were well contained by Japan last night and the door is surely open for Farrell to be deployed at inside centre next Saturday and in the final pool fixture.
Joe Marchant added a fourth try for England to wrap up a bonus point victory in Nice
George Ford was the heartbeat of England’s attack again against a robust Japan side
What many England fans will crave is more game-time for Marcus Smith. The Harlequins playmaker was sent on at full-back in the second half and his presence gave Borthwick’s team a greater creative edge in space out wide.
Those who value attacking artistry will yearn to see such a precocious talent unleashed from the start of matches, but his razzle-dazzle work doesn’t quite align with how England set out to play for the majority of matches.
Japan made the brighter start last night, in front of a crowd some 5,000 shy of the modest 35,000 capacity. George Ford’s fourth-minute penalty put England in front, but after that Jamie Joseph’s side produced the more threatening, daring rugby. Joe Marler won a crucial turnover penalty in front of his line to prevent a Japanese try, before two penalties by Rikiya Matsuda put them 6-3 up.
Stung into life, England swiftly hit back. Ford’s shrewd touch kick on the left put pressure on the Japanese lineout, their throw was spilled and Ollie Chessum charged at the line. The Leicester lock was stopped short, but from the ruck, Ludlam blasted over for England’s first try of the World Cup.
England head coach Steve Borthwick was delighted to see his side’s winning start at the Rugby World Cup continue
Ford converted, but he missed his next shot and Japan closed the gap again as Matsuda was on target at the other end. Ford had the last word before the break, with a kick to make it 13-9, but England were far from commanding at the halfway stage.
After the break, Borthwick’s men set about raising the tempo and playing with more intent. Kazuki Himeno halted one English surge into the red zone with a breakdown penalty and just before the hour, his side clawed their way back to within a point through another Matsuda penalty.
But a minute later, England struck lucky. Earl broke down the right and when the ball was switched in-field, Ford’s pass was fumbled backwards by Will Stuart, bounced off Marler’s head into space and Lawes pounced to score.
Ford converted again and with 14 minutes to go he created a third Red Rose try, with a cross-kick from an attacking scrum, which Steward caught to touch down. Right at the death, Marchant crashed over for the bonus-point try, to create an emphatic scoreline, even if it hadn’t been an emphatic performance.