England: Rugby World Cup journey is under way - now it needs to pick up speed

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
Manu Tuilagi
Manu Tuilagi scored England's first two tries in victory over Tonga

It matters how you start a World Cup but not as much as how you finish it.

Eddie Jones has been deep in enough of these ding-dongs to realise that, and his grin after England's stuttering 35-3 win over Tonga on Sunday was that of a man who knows that he has the time and opportunity to find much more.

He will have to search for it after a performance that was less of a charge on to the World Cup stage than a slightly apologetic stumble through the opening curtain.

You can win games against struggling teams like Tonga and still feel like you have lost a little. Everyone expects victory. Plenty expect something extravagant, particularly when the opposition have lost six of their last seven games, including defeats by Japan, Fiji and Samoa.

It doesn't need to matter. Just win. Get the bonus point in the bag. Keep everyone fit, move on, step it up.

And yet...

Two weeks ago Tonga were shipping 14 tries against New Zealand. While the comparison between a warm-up game and tournament proper is not entirely accurate, the display of the reigning champions in putting away the far stiffer challenge of South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday cast a shadow over all other pretenders to their throne.

Neither was the Jones grin a permanent fixture on his chops. After England had given away a needless penalty for offside after a restart when Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola tried something unnecessarily funky, the big screens in the corner of the Sapporo Dome showed a close-up of the Australian twice thumping the table in front of him with mute fury.

If it was reminiscent of the moment when one of his predecessors, Martin Johnson, was caught almost punching a hole in his own leg after a Danny Care transgression in Dublin a decade ago, it illustrated too that the face Jones shows to his players behind closed doors may not always be benevolent.

Johnson's own reign as England coach was ended by a World Cup campaign that fell apart rapidly after a similarly unflattering opening game, that time a squeaky one-try win over Argentina in Dunedin.

Jones understands that, like Johnson, his time at the helm will be judged by what happens on the biggest stage of all. You can win the Six Nations and you can lose them. Fail at a World Cup and you go - as Johnson did in the aftermath of 2011, as Stuart Lancaster did after the calamity of 2015.

Johnson's regime ended with the 20-year-old Manu Tuilagi jumping off a ferry into Auckland harbour, the last of several moments of off-field scandal. Lancaster's was arguably fatally holed when a combination of off-field indiscipline and familiar injury denied him the chance to bring Tuilagi back into the fold, with all that happened afterwards with Sam Burgess coming in his place and a settled back line being reshuffled to accommodate him.

And so Jones can count himself lucky that he has Tuilagi not only back but looking both leaner and more powerful than he ever has in an England jersey, a low-slung bulldozer with the acceleration of a sports car and the power of a wrecking-ball.

Tonga brought the muscle and they brought the attitude, just as everyone expected. Ben Youngs and Anthony Watson were both stopped as if they had run into concrete bollards. Vunipola, who goes backwards as often as Johnson did as a player, was reversed at startling pace by Tonga's open-side flanker Zane Kapeli.

Tuilagi shows obvious relish for such heavy fire. He also has the weaponry to give it back.

His first try came with a thump, a wrestler's twist and two more thumps. His second came when the Tongan defence was sucked in to his dummy run and finished with a supporting line into the space left behind.

World Cups are won by teams but garlanded by great players hitting their peak. You can cruise through some of the group stage but the knock-out games are decided by small moments and big displays.

Tuilagi has always had the potential to be a player like that and England will need him to be. In a team based around power and its relentless application he is its smiling embodiment, a point of difference with the bluntest of corners.

He could have had a hat-trick had replacement Henry Slade not shown a little rustiness and taken the ball into contact deep in the Tongan 22 with his team-mate cantering free on his left. Slade and Elliot Daly had the same problem with ruthlessness when another opportunity opened up even closer in to the left corner, one of 14 handling errors made by the men in white.

Jones was keen to point out afterwards that England have now played 160 minutes of Test rugby without conceding a try, less to highlight the fact that those matches were against teams who few expect to escape the group stage here in Japan was pushed to one side.

With the similarly spirited yet limited USA to come on Thursday in Kobe, England have time to pick up pace and direction. You get the sense that Jones, a famously hard taskmaster, will relish the training-sessions ahead.

"Sometimes rugby's like that," he said afterwards. "You go with all the best intentions to be sharp, you've got a picture in your head that says you're going to play some rugby and it doesn't end up like that.

"We weren't sharp today, but what I really liked was the attitude of our players. The great thing was we showed no frustration."

In public. England's journey is underway. Now it needs to pick up speed and direction.


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