In the aftermath of England's unconvincing victory over Japan, Eddie Jones's thoughts turned to the last match of the autumn against Australia and his choice of words was telling. It will be "a good scrap", said Jones, who will renew hostilities with Michael Cheika – a "street fighter" who will have his beleaguered Wallabies "ready for battle".
There was the usual soundbite – “We want to send them home without a smile on their face” – but of most significance is that Jones is predicting a dogfight, or rather that is what he wants. Because, if England’s three autumn matches have told us anything – and you can add in the last summer Test against South Africa too – it is that they are most comfortable going back to basics and slugging it out.
The second-half turnaround against a Japan side who displayed such courage in the first 40 minutes only reinforced that view. It was not until Jones had questioned his side's character at half-time and sent on the indispensable Owen Farrell that England were able to overpower their opponents.
“Obviously the standard wasn’t acceptable,” Jones said when asked about England’s first-half showing, when fortunate to be only 15-10 down.
England emerged with credit for their gutsy win over South Africa, likewise for their narrow defeat by the All Blacks, but this was a match in which they were supposed to be ruthless, to dominate possession and territory and, above all, seize the initiative. Late tries from Joe Cokanasiga on debut and Dylan Hartley do not mask the fact that they failed on most counts.
Jones however, explained how happy he was that his players came through the test. He had shortened the training week to prepare them for their second World Cup fixture next year, four days after their first, made 11 changes, tinkered positionally and baited Japan into bringing this kind of performance. “It was an important experiment in making sure that we have our best players fully fit for next week,” he said. “It was a great experiment looking at World Cup flexibility and adaptability and so again it was a very positive weekend for us.”
If he really wanted to test his side, he should have left Farrell on the bench and Maro Itoje out completely. Itoje was the official man of the match – in truth the Japan captain Michael Leitch was the outstanding performer until his side tired in the final quarter – but Jones was full of praise for his secondrow, telling BBC 5 Live: "I think by this time next year at the World Cup he'll be the best lock in the world."
He bristled too, at the idea that England are too reliant on Farrell. “If I was Japan and I had Michael Leitch off the field, I’d be a bit worried too,” he said. “If I was us with Owen Farrell off the field, I’d be a bit worried. If I was Ireland with Johnny Sexton off the field, I’d be a bit worried. Do you want me to keep going? He’s an influential player. Of course he’s important to us.”
Farrell will come back into the lineup against Australia – Jones is expected to return to something like the side defeated by New Zealand, though Chris Ashton is a doubt with a calf injury – and it must be said his record with England against his countrymen is a flawless five wins from five. Australia arrive on a run of nine defeats from 13 matches since last autumn's defeat by England and while they overcame Italy on Saturday, David Pocock is now doubtful with a neck injury.
“[Michael Cheika], he’s my old mate, he’s always at his best when they’re under pressure,” said Jones. “He loves that, he’s a street fighter, so it does make them dangerous but at the same time we’ve had a tough year too and we don’t mind a scrap either, so it should be a good scrap.”
Defeat for England and the mood darkens again, not least with the departure of Steve Brown as the RFU's chief executive still reverberating around Twickenham. Victory however, and the recovery since the dismal Six Nations showing continues. As Richard Wigglesworth acknowledged: "Both teams will be desperate for the win because it completely changes your autumn," he said. "We win and go three from four having played well last week and it looks like a good autumn."
Tries: Care, Wilson, Cokanasiga, Hartley. Cons: Ford 3. Pens: Daly, Ford 2.
England: Daly, Cokanasiga, Nowell, Lozowski, Ashton, Ford, Care, Hepburn, George, Williams, Ewels, Itoje, Lawes, Wilson, Mercer. Replacements: Farrell for Lozowski (41), Wigglesworth for Care (60), Moon for Hepburn (49), Hartley for George (73), Sinckler for Williams (51), Hill for Ewels (75), Underhill for Mercer (49). Not Used: Slade. Sin Bin: George (20).
Tries: Nakamura, Leitch. Cons: Tamura. Pens: Tamura.
Japan: Tupou, Yamada, Lafaele, Nakamura, Fukuoka, Tamura, Tanaka, Inagaki, Sakate, Koo, van der Walt, Helu, Leitch, Nishikawa, Himeno. Replacements: Matsuda for Tamura (70), Nagare for Tanaka (41), Niwai for Sakate (70), Anise for Helu (41), Tui for Himeno (60). Not Used: Yamanaka, Ai Valu, Nunomaki.
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)