As starts to the autumn programme goes, this was pretty much ideal for England and Eddie Jones. An 11-try victory over Tonga, with young faces in the squad combining seamlessly with the more experienced players in front of a packed Twickenham, is all they could have asked for.
England had to navigate the disruption of captain Owen Farrell’s late withdrawal due to a positive COVID-19 test. There will always be caveats with this victory due to the limitations of Tonga, but England played some outstanding, expansive rugby and the scoreline was a fair reflection of their dominance. Tonga didn’t help themselves with two yellow cards and a red, but England managed to keep the tempo up throughout to stretch the visitors.
Jones challenged his players pre-match to play the sort of rugby that quashes any spectator’s temptation to turn to a Mexican Wave to fill the gaps. There were sporadic attempts at these, but England kept the crowd enthralled as they played a mix of close-range, forceful rugby, and then attacking from deep. This felt like a beginning, a match played 609 days after the last time Twickenham was full and with a new-look squad. This was always going to be a game where we got a glimpse of what’s to come over the next two years heading into the 2023 World Cup.
After England’s dismal 2021 Six Nations campaign, and their comfortable summer Test programme where they eased past the USA and Canada, this was the starting bell for the pre-World Cup shadow boxing. Jones brought down the curtain on the past six years with this squad ahead of the autumn series, with familiar faces like the Vunipola brothers absent, and a host of young hopefuls included. The team for Tonga combined both eras: the experienced heads such as Joe Marler on the bench, the temporarily exiled Jamie George (left out of the original squad but then recalled after Luke Cowan-Dickie’s injury), then there are the mainstays like the outstanding Slade and bulldozing Ellis Genge, and the third tier are the young crop coming through.
The combinations clicked. George Furbank was at fly-half for just the sixth time in his professional career, and his first at Test level and did well as the late replacement for Farrell. He carried to the line, had lightning-quick passing, and kept the tempo ticking over. Adam Radwan took his chance early on with a well-taken try, and then kept Tonga backpedalling in the closing stages as their legs tired. Freddie Steward has the ability and presence to be a mainstay at fullback for the next decade, while others like Alex Mitchell and Jamie Blamire slotted straight in. But if you’re looking for Twickenham’s next crowd favourite then it comes in Marcus Smith. The Harlequins No.10 had 30 minutes off the bench and was magnificent. Every time he got the ball it was as if he was holding the crowd in the palm of his hand.
But for the new faces, two “older” statesman were the best players on the pitch. Courtney Lawes was a late coronation as captain and was everywhere on the field. Though England scored 11 tries, Lawes’ try-saving tackle on Telusa Veainu was the moment of the match. And then there was Henry Slade. So much of England’s attacking intention and invention went through the outside centre.
These matches are always mere footnotes when it comes to World Cup campaigns, but the added drama around the game will quietly please Jones. He likes to simulate World Cup scenarios in the build up and we saw that unwittingly on Saturday. Tonga arrived late so kick-off was delayed, while he lost captain Farrell in the build up after the RFU announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday. Best laid plans up in smoke, adjustment needed and a stable build-up suddenly feeling a little bit turbulent.
But there was never any risk of that uncertainty affecting the players. After a near two-year absence without fans, Twickenham was rocking like it was early 2020 again, with England playing free-flowing rugby with ambition and confidence. Suddenly those dark days of 2021 and the troubled Six Nations campaign in front of the empty stands seem like a different world. It’s remarkable what a 11-try victory can do to bring a feel-good factor to this parish. But England and their followers will know the Wallabies and the Springboks will offer far sterner challenges over the next two weekends.