England’s priorities against Tonga are simple. Four tries, maximum points, a clean bill of health and move on to Kobe. It may be the start of a World Cup campaign after three months building up to it but in reality it is an extension of their pre-season. No disrespect to Tonga but England will win the match. They are not looking to peak now and if the playbook was restricted in the warm-up matches it still will be on Sunday.
That is not to say England will not get anything out of the match but it is an acknowledgment that this is a slow-burning tournament for Eddie Jones’s side. And that will suit them perfectly. Compare England’s schedule, where they can ease their way through the gears, to what New Zealand and South Africa are facing. Both of those sides are being asked to peak in their first match of the World Cup, then simmer for a few weeks and try to hit those heights again. Mentally that is a really tough ask. It’s not hard to peak for game one because you’ve been in camp for three months but you’ll get to the quarter-finals after “fallow weeks” for matches they are expected to win comfortably and have to do so again.
For England though, it is perfect. They can move through the first couple of gears in their opening two matches and then they are fully into it against Argentina and France when the shackles come off and the full playbook comes out. Of course they will have bespoke plays for each team but we will get more of an insight into what this England team is about in those last two pool matches – before that the DNA doesn’t change but the detail will do.
I also expect England to put themselves under a bit of pressure. In Ireland’s first warm-up match against Italy over the summer, they chose to play out of their 22 from every ball they received from the restart. They were effectively practising new ways of doing things. Ordinarily, every time someone kicks long to Ireland they set up a ruck and Conor Murray box-kicks, either out on the half-way line or contestable for his runners. But against Italy they did not do it once because it was a live opportunity to try new things. England are not going to do that against Argentina or France but in the first two matches I would not be surprised if they do.
Before they can focus too much on that however, the first 20 minutes will be vital. They must be professional in their approach and not get caught up in the emotion that will come with the occasion. What Tonga want is confrontation. Put simply they want to hit men. So if you’ve got an England pack just aimlessly carrying, that will feed Tongan energy. England just need to be smart in what they do and perhaps not have the ball for a little while. The one thing everyone is going to want to do is carry, make a mark but they need to be really professional and clinical about what they do.
Tonga will want a high tempo game and will thrive off unstructured turnover ball. It may be a quick kick-off down the middle, they will be so ferocious at the ruck, or the 13 flying out of the line. England will be thinking: “Hang on a minute, we’ve not seen this in any video anywhere.” That’s what they are going to have to deal with. They need to take hold of the game, it might be a bit boring, and I know the crowd will be desperate to see tries but it’s not a problem if it’s three, six, nine to take the wind out of Tonga’s sails and make them chase the game. England cannot fall into the trap of thinking: “We’re going to go out and score four tries in the first 30 minutes and then look after ourselves.”
England’s defence has looked impregnable in recent matches so in terms of tactics, I would favour an aerial assault, plenty of high balls and kicking long. Effectively saying to Tonga: “Just come at us.” Tonga will not want to defend for 20 plus phases, they don’t have the discipline or the fitness to do it. England do, they’ve got the power, the physicality and the discipline. So I would like to see Owen Farrell and George Ford keep kicking deep the ball into the Tonga half. I honestly think England will be happy to sit there, force the turnover and then spring into action on the back of it.
The one thing you cannot do in rugby is get your energy from your attack as much as you do in attack. Tonga get theirs in attack, not in defence. If they turn the ball over they will not have that same energy to get back or discipline to defend for the amount of phases necessary to keep England out. The tries will come, in the Sapporo Dome the pitch will be perfect but England must show patience at first to achieve all their goals.