The Rugby World Cup 2019 is finally under way. Already there have been some fantastic tries, thumping hits and compelling rollercoaster games. Amidst it all, England recorded a 35-3 win over Tonga in their opening fixture. A relatively routine victory, it was an underwhelming performance from England given it was against a (no disrespect to Tonga) struggling side that shipped 14 tries in a 92-7 loss to New Zealand a few weeks previously.
While the high stakes of World Cup rugby often act as something of a leveller between teams – New Zealand only beat Tonga 41-10 back in the 2011 group stages – this ambitious England team can and will need to do better. Here are three talking points from the game.
Unforced errors need fixing
Did World Rugby accidentally use Warren Gatland’s baby-oil coated training balls for this match? Sunday’s game featured some of the sloppiest handling by an England side in as long as I can remember – over a dozen unforced handling errors regularly undermining good field position and attacking play. Henry Slade and Elliot Daly’s comical mix up – Daly overrunning while Slade demonstrating zero awareness to fizz a fast pass into empty space – was the rather sour icing on the cake.
In total England conceded 17 turnovers, half a dozen of which were in Tonga’s 22. Add to that 10 penalties, many of them basic and unnecessary, equals a pretty sloppy performance overall, despite earning a four-try bonus point win. The decision making was off at times and England were too passive at the breakdown, regularly forcing Ben Youngs to deal with slow ball if the turnover wasn’t conceded.
Maybe the unforced errors can be put down to opening night nerves – at least that’s what England fans will be hoping, as make no mistake, stronger tests await.
Strong defence and set piece
While there are things to grumble about (we are English fans after all), if we dig a little deeper there are plenty of positives too. Manu Tuilagi will take the plaudits for his barnstorming two-try performance, but for me the biggest positive was a second game in a row without conceding a try.
While no one really expected Tonga to spring an upset, make no mistake they do have
dangerous players. England missed a few first up tackles against powerful runners like Cooper Vuna and Siale Piutau, but their scramble defence was very strong and they denied Tonga any real try scoring opportunity.
Alongside that they recorded 100% on both scrum and line out – on the surface nothing to write home about, but among the other tier 1 teams in action, Ireland were the only other to achieve that. Sometimes the basics are worth celebrating.
As is Ben ‘the Wardrobe’ Tameifuna, for having the best nickname in rugby.
France will be no pushovers
Not technically a talking point from the England game, but anyone who watched France squeak past Argentina will have taken note. For 30 minutes or so France looked very, very good, racing to a 20-3 lead at half time.
The Toulouse halfback pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, just 22 and 20 years old respectively, look lethal and have injected real cohesion and attacking intent into the French team.
Of course, France being France they then endeavoured to throw it all away as Argentina dragged themselves back into the match – ultimately it wasn’t enough but it would have been the biggest points overhaul in World Cup history.
In that first half, France demonstrated more incisive and dangerous rugby than in the entirety of the Six Nations. I for one am not expecting a repeat of the 44-8 drubbing dished out by England earlier this year when these two teams meet again in the pool stages. England will need to be infinitely sharper and more focused than they were against Tonga to beat the French – or the Argentinians for that matter.
By Henry Ker