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Joe Marler’s head to the rescue as England secure bonus-point victory over Japan

England 34-12 Japan

STADE DE NICE — One of the wackiest tries you will see at any level of rugby helped England make it two Rugby World Cup wins from two, and all but ensure their place in next month’s quarter-finals.

England had been through seven phases in the 56th minute, as fly-half George Ford threw a right-to-left pass that bounced off replacement prop Will Stuart’s left arm – backwards – and hit the gleaming bald head of a nonplussed Joe Marler before the ball bounced beautifully obligingly off the ground for captain Courtney Lawes to run it in.

With Ford’s conversion it nudged England two scores ahead, after Japan’s fly-half Rikiya Matsuda had kicked his third penalty of the evening for his side to trail 13-12 just beforehand.

England will complete their pool business against Chile next week and Samoa a fortnight later, both in Lille, and they should win both. Then a last-eight tie with a team from the Wales-Australia-Fiji pool awaits in the middle of October. So they do have time to add some finer touches.

To the ticket-buyers and more distant watchers, however, it is unclear if England cannot attack, or are choosing not to and, to date, they are relying on a pressure game to get the jobs done.

There were boos for a box-kick by scrum-half Alex Mitchell on 49 minutes – they may have been from Japanese spectators, or French, or some English too.

It came after an all-round shocker of a first half, with England kicking from their first three pieces of possession, and much of what they had after that.

When towards the interval they tried a little more handling, with Marler prominent, there were blunders such as Mitchell throwing a pass into traffic when he must have known it was no longer on, and Joe Marchant knocking on in contact after Manu Tuilagi had done well to beat the first-up tackle off a promising scrum, and a Ben Earl pass out of a maul ricocheting off his club-mate Jamie George.

There was also a silly late-tackle penalty conceded by Jonny May.

Japan were not immune to aimless kicking themselves, as they several times carried thrillingly into England territory, only to lose faith in one of the best collective sets of hands in world rugby.

It was 13-9 to England at half-time, after two penalty goals each by Ford and his opposite number Rikiya Matsuda, and another converted try with an element of fortune.

It came in the 24th minute, from a position forced by Ford kicking low into touch near the Japan goal-line.

England's outside centre Joe Marchant dives across the line to score a try during the France 2023 Rugby World Cup Pool D match between England and Japan at Stade de Nice in Nice, southern France on September 17, 2023. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)
Joe Marchant secures the bonus point for England against Japan (Photo: Reuters)

Maro Itoje contested the throw with Japan’s Michael Leitch, the ball bounced loose into the arms of Ollie Chessum, and though he was tackled, England recycled quickly, and No 8 Lewis Ludlam drove over.

The urgency and teamwork of Japan in their best moments revived warm memories of how they knocked over South Africa at the 2019 World Cup, and Ireland and Scotland in 2019.

But their world ranking of 14th to England’s sixth tells a story, and England were not about to make it one of horror, with Freddie Steward catching Ford’s left-footed kick-pass for their third try on 65 minutes and Marchant nabbing the fourth, late on.

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