Japan vs England: Marcus Smith’s breakthrough, a golden wing pair at last and five things we learnt

England fly-half Marcus Smith on his way to score a try against Japan at the National Stadium in Tokyo (EPA)
England fly-half Marcus Smith on his way to score a try against Japan at the National Stadium in Tokyo (EPA)

England geared up for Tests against the All Blacks in fine fashion as they secured a sizeable win over Japan in Tokyo.

Encountering Eddie Jones for the first time since the former head coach’s defenestration at the end of 2022, England would have feared a sticky afternoon in the heat and humidity of the Japanese capital and struggled to get going with Japan firing out of the blocks.

But Marcus Smith and Henry Slade soon warmed to their work, showing off the ample attacking options at their disposal to accelerate up through the gears and eventually hit 50.

Eight tries in all would have pleased Steve Borthwick but the head coach was given a headache by the late sending off of replacement lock Charlie Ewels for a dangerous clearout.

Here are five things we learnt from England’s tour opener in Tokyo:

Marcus Smith seizes chance at fly-half

Entering this game, Smith had started three times with the No 10 shirt on his back under Borthwick and been on the losing side in each of them. However, with George Ford absent due to an achilles issue and Owen Farrell on his way to France, this summer offers an opportunity for a princely talent to establish himself at Test level.

The Harlequin star remains in pole position to start against the All Blacks (AFP/Getty)
The Harlequin star remains in pole position to start against the All Blacks (AFP/Getty)

With Fin Smith pushing hard for selection after an outstanding season for Northampton, a misfire from his namesake would have left the Harlequin vulnerable ahead of the New Zealand leg of the tour. But Smith was excellent in Tokyo, picking his runners nicely and showing off his extra turn of pace to score a brilliantly constructed first-half try. He kicked well from hand and tee, too, and looks likely to retain the starting shirt for the first Test in Dunedin in a fortnight.

England wings continue to impress

Both Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman enjoyed breakthrough Six Nations campaigns and the wing pair picked up where they left off in Tokyo. The pair’s attacking talents tend to get tongues wagging but it is as much for their defensive attitude and acumen that each has been earmarked for international success. Both are good fits in England’s outside blitz defensive system and showed as much against a lively Japan attack: Feyi-Waboso fired out of the line to intercept a pass in the build-up to Henry Slade’s try before half time, while Freeman made several rib-crunching tackles.

Tommy Freeman was strong defensively for England (Getty)
Tommy Freeman was strong defensively for England (Getty)

Tom Roebuck earned a debut from the bench and is pushing hard, alongside Freeman’s Northampton teammate Ollie Sleightholme, but Feyi-Waboso and Freeman are a beautifully balanced pair still developing into their primes. England might just have found a wing partnership to stick with.

Warner Dearns shows why there is hope for Japan

Japan will have been pleased with how they started and ended the game, though the drop-off through the second and third quarters was stark and perhaps to be expected of a side largely untested at this level. Full-back Yoshitaka Yazaki had never featured at professional level domestically, illustrating the inexperience within the side.

Warner Dearns looks a potential star of the future for Japan (Getty)
Warner Dearns looks a potential star of the future for Japan (Getty)

But Jones will be hopeful of the future as he builds towards the 2027 World Cup. Young flanker Kai Yamamoto impressed off the bench, fly half Seungsin Lee is only 23 and in lock Warner Dearns, Jones has a bona fide star. The giant second row did not make the impact some predicted at the World Cup but his athleticism and dexterity in such a large frame is an intriguing proposition, as he showed in creating Japan’s two tries. Jones will surely look to build his architecture around pillars like Dearns and Lee.

Bevan Rodd grows into game – but it may not be enough to keep loosehead shirt

England’s clunky opening 20 minutes could perhaps be put partly down to difficult conditions but their lack of discipline in that period will be more of a concern for Borthwick. The visitors were pinged three times inside the first six minutes, with loosehead Bevan Rodd picked out at scrum time for a collapse that threatened a difficult afternoon for the Sale prop. But England’s set-piece work was better thereafter, with Rodd and Dan Cole stable.

The starting loosehead shirt is up for grabs, with Ellis Genge out through injury and Borthwick seemingly reluctant to use veterans Joe Marler and Cole alongside one another. Fin Baxter is developing quickly under Marler’s tutelage at Harlequins. Rodd, meanwhile, has a lovely skillset but has never fully convinced in his limited opportunities at Test level – this was another mixed bag, with the prop quiet as a carrier.

Fin Baxter could make his England debut this summer (PA Wire)
Fin Baxter could make his England debut this summer (PA Wire)

There was a bizarre moment where the 23-year-old took a quick tap five metres from the Japan line and then inexplicably stopped, though he regained his composure to cling on to the ball in the movement that led to Feyi-Waboso’s try. Might England look at a different prop combination in Dunedin? Utilising Marler and Will Stuart from the start with Rodd and Cole off the bench might end up as Borthwick’s strategy.

An unwelcome return for Charlie Ewels

Charlie Ewels will be furious with himself. The Bath lock has worked so hard to get back onto the international stage, overcoming an ACL injury to return to the England fold more than two years after his last cap ended almost instantly with a second-minute sending-off against Ireland at Twickenham. To then produce a needless, reckless clearout and be shown red again will desperately disappoint a player at times unfairly maligned for his performances.

It leaves Borthwick with a bit of a conundrum. Ollie Chessum’s absence means England’s are light at lock anyway, and Ewels’s ability as a ruck resource and lineout leader is valuable with few players of that archetype pushing for selection. Alex Coles is in the squad as another but were Ewels to be banned for both New Zealand games, there isn’t necessarily a like-for-like alternative. It may be that Rusi Tuima – impressive at Exeter – is flown in: the youngster is a fascinating prospect as a tighthead lock but can’t replicate what Ewels offers.

It may mean that Maro Itoje has to go the distance in both Tests against the All Blacks. That is an even greater concern, with Itoje set to exceed the 2,400-minute limit set by the Rugby Players Association (RPA) for a single season. England are understood to be relaxed about the lock’s high workload, insisting that he will not go beyond 35 match involvements across the campaign, but over-burdening such a key individual is surely a concern in the long term.