It says everything about the creativity issues that still afflict this England side that the try which jump-started their night in Nice came from a Joe Marler header. As unlikely sources go, it took some beating. It was just about the first time England had used their heads in attack against Japan all evening.
Booed by their own fans at the Stade de Nice for their obsessive kicking – bad kicking at that – England had flirted with defeat for 56 minutes against a side who they beat 60-7 the last time they played them at a World Cup. But Marler’s unintentional brainwave turned the game and England came good in the end to deliver an unlikely bonus-point victory.
Four tries was a remarkable return, in fact scarcely believable given the moderate quality of the fare earlier on. For Marler, the personal try drought now extends to 84 barren Tests but in terms of assists it was a breakthrough night.
Not only was there the Courtney Lawes nut job but a rather more conventional little pop pass into the hands of the thundering Lewis Ludlam for his first half touchdown. They were the first of an England career which stretches back 11 years. London buses and all that.
Marler is not paid to be a magician. At 120kg, his job is to drive scrums, hit rucks and whack opponents. His tournament mugshot is an arched-eyebrow supervillain pose – which lacks only a cat being stroked in his arms – is like that for a reason. But thank goodness he took time out from the day job to indulge in some eccentric moonlighting.
It was a good night all round for the Harlequin – without his critical turnover penalty in the ninth minute Japan could have been in for a first half try which was the least they deserved for their labours.
Jokin’ Joe, the class clown of this England squad, is a complex character. He has, in the past, admitted to hating his time away from his family with England. Playing rugby for England is not the be-all and end-all for Marler. Far from it.
But when he is a happy camper he is a ball of fun and a huge asset to the squad on what England hope will end up being a seven-week stay in France. He is a human barometer of where the squad is at. A good tourist is no use though if he doesn’t contribute on the field when he is called to.
When you are behind one of the squad leaders in Ellis Genge, you know starts will be thin on the ground so you have to make the most of them. And in the strangest way imaginable, he did.