This was always destined to be a day when the number of points accrued by England felt a relatively minor detail. Given the endless talking points in the buildup – the Covid-19 uncertainty, a new home captain and fly-half, long queues around the stadium, a delayed kick-off – it was to the credit of all concerned that a capacity Twickenham crowd departed feeling optimistic about what may yet lie ahead this autumn.
There may well be more mileage in the Owen Farrell saga, with the captain’s post-Covid availability apparently under discussion with Public Health England, but here was evidence of some fresh English momentum and useful youthful impetus. While an ill-disciplined and ponderous Tonga were often their own worst enemies, England will be quietly encouraged before Australia’s impending visit next Saturday.
If two tries apiece for Ben Youngs, Jonny May and Jamie George stood out alongside a classy display from the man of the match, Henry Slade, there was no mistaking the feelgood vibe as Marcus Smith skipped over for a 72nd-minute try that underlined the bizarre logic of the Harlequin not starting the game after Farrell’s enforced withdrawal.
Freddie Steward, all 6ft 5in of him, also looked a rock-steady pylon at full-back while Adam Radwan has the feet to supply some dance hall style to any team. The champagne moment, though, unquestionably belonged to the stand-in captain, Courtney Lawes, whose last-gasp cover tackle on Telusa Veainu late in the first half completely rewrote the traditional rules of how much ground a 6ft 7in, 32-year-old back-five forward should theoretically be able to cover.
Not that there was ever any doubt which moment would generate the biggest cheer of the day. Smith’s arrival off the bench in place of the starting 10, George Furbank, did not totally transform the course of the game but by the end he was completely running the show, putting the replacement hooker, Jamie Blamire, away for a cracking late score as England, who scored 11 tries, including a late debut effort from Alex Mitchell, finished with a genuine flourish.
It will do little to hush the argument about who should wear England’s No 10 jersey going forward. Surely this was an obvious opportunity to start with Smith, rather than ask him to deliver a late cameo? Or maybe not. Eddie Jones, the head coach, has never been the type to bend like a palm tree even in the face of gale-force public opinion.
Overall, though, this was a positive start to England’s autumn, notwithstanding the 68th minute red card for the calculated elbow to Smith’s head that led to the replacement Viliami Fine being sent off.
Slade looked revitalised alongside Manu Tuilagi and, at first glance, the arrival of Martin Gleeson as England’s new attack coach is showing some distinct early promise. There is much more evidence of England backs showing real aggressive intent with their running and carrying and more clarity about what they are seeking to do.
The upshot was five first-half tries, the first for Radwan arriving inside three minutes. Replays suggested some off-the-ball obstruction from Furbank played a part but the Newcastle winger is the kind of player who could step his way through a crowded phone box.
The roar Jamie George emitted after finishing off a 13th-minute maul try was further evidence of the Saracens’ renewed hunger, which was collectively reflected across England’s performance even before May led the defence a merry 29th-minute dance on the left and Slade, after a couple of earlier near misses, nailed the conversion
The visitors’ day took a further turn for the worse when their left-wing, Solomone Kata, was sent to the sin-bin for clumsily taking out May out in the air.
In his absence, England helped themselves to a couple more tries. A bullocking run from Ellis Genge supplied the momentum from which the supporting Maro Itoje scored his side’s fourth and a rejuvenated Youngs sliced through a defensive gap for a fifth just before the interval.
Youngs cheekily stripped the ball off Sione Vailanu to race away for his second within 10 minutes of the restart and thereafter it was free-running carnage. May’s high-leaping first-half tribute to Chris Ashton – the May-Fly? – looked painful but his hunger for tries was further illustrated by a stretching effort on the hour mark, his 35th try in 67 England appearances.
With the gaps in the defence widening, even the isolating Farrell would have been suitably impressed by the sight of Smith romping away for his own score and giving England another attacking dimension. Though with Tonga’s head coach, Toutai Kefu, recovering from the injuries he suffered in an horrific attack on his home in Brisbane in August, even the heavy punishment the visitors endured late on has to be seen as strictly relative.