OITA – England turned on the style to run in four tries in their 40-16 victory over Australia on Saturday but coach Eddie Jones said it was their defensive effort in the opening quarter that built the platform for their crushing win.
Australia led with an early penalty and spent most of the first 18 minutes attacking - and being repeatedly repelled - until two quick-fire Jonny May tries changed the feel of the game.
“Defensively, particularly in that first 20 minutes, we had to really dig in,” Jones told a news conference. “They had 70% possession and had a lot of field position so it was an important part of the game.
“We hung in there, got a bit of momentum back and then took our opportunities well.”
Eyebrows were lifted when Jones dropped George Ford from the starting team to enable him to pair centres Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade outside Owen Farrell at flyhalf but, not for the first time, the vastly experienced coach showed that he knew what he was doing.
“We were pleased with selection at 10, 12 and 13,” he said with a smile. “They had a lot of defensive work early in the game and we thought that might happen. I also thought George Ford was absolutely spectacular when he came on – he kept Australia running around when we wanted them to.” On his 50th appearance, May was the man to finish the first of England's opportunities, one cleverly created with a series of dummy runners and the second coming after brilliant work by Slade, with prop Kyle Sinckler and Anthony Watson also scoring in the second half.
“There is probably no more professional player than him,” Jones said of May, adding that he was withdrawn late on as a precaution after feeling a “twinge” but was not expected to be a doubt for the semi-finals.
Slade’s recall was worth it almost just for that brilliantly imagined and executed chip-kick on the run into the path of May for the second try after he had claimed an interception in his own half.
Farrell also had his best game of the tournament by far, leading from the front with his aggressive defence and delivering a superlative goalkicking display, landing all eight of his kicks, several from wide out.
Jones also praised his captain's leadership, saying the team’s ability to keep their focus when Australia got back to within a point early in the second half was a big step forward.
“We gathered under the posts and we didn’t really talk about what had happened, it was about what was next,” said Farrell, who scored 20 points from four penalties and four conversions.
“We wanted to play the game at our pace, not theirs, and thankfully we did that in the second half." Having chalked up their seventh successive win against the Wallabies to fully make amends for the 2015 World Cup defeat, England now move on to Tokyo to prepare for their first semi-final since 2007, looking likely to be against New Zealand, when Jones said they will have to improve again.
"We haven’t played at our best yet and the challenge is how do we get better next week?" he said.
"The semi-final is probably the toughest game of the tournament - two teams desperate to get to the final, and everyone empties the tank."