Japan in with a prayer until England pull away in last quarter
Brave Blossoms led at half-time after brilliant first-half performance
Japan’s Michael Leitch is tackled by England’s Alex Lozowki during the autumn international at Twickenham. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
England 35 Japan 15
England survived an almighty scare as Japan threatened another giant slaying before Joe Cokanasiga’s try sealed a 35-15 victory at Twickenham.
Eddie Jones had urged the Brave Blossoms to “go to the temple and pray” but instead it was England’s head coach who was pleading to the heavens as his side fell 15-10 behind at half-time.
The Test remained alive until the 72nd minute when bulldozing Bath wing Cokanasiga powered over to celebrate his debut with a try.
Until that point, Japan’s speed of thought, ability to keep the ball alive and willingness to try the unexpected caused chaos in English ranks.
The interval deficit would have been larger still had Michael Leitch managed to score his second try, but the outstanding captain had already done enough to leave his calling card at Twickenham.
Japan’s electric play made for an enthralling afternoon and Jones’s concern was evident when he replaced Alex Lozowski with Owen Farrell at the interval, the arrival of Saracens’ playmaker the prelude to a shift in the game’s balance.
The energy emptied from the tourists’ legs and England capitalised when Mark Wilson touched down in the 59th minute, but it was far from over as slick footwork and imagination made Japan a constant threat.
Cokanasiga struck, however, before a late Dylan Hartley try unfairly disfigured the final score to leave Jones reflecting on a poor performance against the side he coached to rugby’s greatest upset when South Africa were toppled at the 2015 World Cup.
It looked ominous for Japan when Danny Care sprinted over just inside three minutes after Elliot Daly had used his footwork to create space to launch a counter-attack, but for the rest of the half England were under siege.
Three penalties conceded in quick succession by Wilson invited pressure and the tourists almost succeeded with a driving maul before outhalf Yu Tamura was bundled into touch just short of the whitewash.
Tamura rifled over a penalty to reward the endeavour and danger loomed again when Kenki Fukuoka escaped down the left wing and, once that avenue was closed, they threatened along the opposite touchline.
England were getting little love from referee Paul Williams as Jamie George was sent to the sin-bin and in the 22nd minute they fell behind when Lozowski failed to stop Ryoto Nakamura as the centre ran hard for the line from a five-metre scrum.
The score was levelled through a Daly penalty taken on the halfway line but Japan were soon back in front through a Leitch try that was a combination of magnificent running and dreadful defence.
Care, Hartley and Harry Williams fell off tackles to allow Leitch to escape but the Japan captain saved the best until last by stepping Daly to score.
Leitch almost plundered another in the right corner soon after but this time Lozowski made the tackle before timely reinforcements arrived in the form of Henry Slade, who had replaced calf-injury victim Chris Ashton.
Farrell’s first act was to fire a perfect touchfinder, but Japan were quickly back on the offensive as they passed and jinked their way out of the tightest of spaces.
Gradually, England began to spend more time on the front foot but they were met by a swarming and feverish defence that turned every collision and ruck into a battle.
The tide was definitely turning, however, and confirmation came when Farrell stood tall in the tackle and fed Wilson for his first international try.
Japan came again and would have scored had Akihito Yamada not been out of position, but the decisive blow was landed in the 71st minute by Cokanasiga who stormed over as England probed down the left before Hartley had the final say.