You might talk about Marcus Smith’s kicking or his deft finishing, about Guy Porter’s happy knack of being in the right place at the right time, twice, or Freddie Steward’s strength in the air and his punishing runs from the deep. But really in years ahead, long after all that and the rest of this 52-13 victory has been forgotten about, it will be Ellis Genge’s performance that people are still talking about. Japanese coaches, at least, will still be telling the little kids they are teaching spook stories about him, and how Genge will come for them if they don’t finish their greens or get up and run that one last lap of the track.
The only place they will not mention his name will be in Jiwon Gu’s house, where, you guess, his family will know better than to bring it up for fear of triggering the old tighthead prop. Genge made sure Gu had a long, traumatic afternoon at Twickenham.
Usually it would be a cliche to say Genge gave Gu a lesson in scrummaging. This time, though, it was literally true. Genge had forced Gu into giving away penalties at each of the first three scrums, and when the fourth was reset, 28 minutes into the game, Genge actually crossed over to Gu and started giving him technical advice on his binding, complete with elaborate hand gestures, so both front rows would be more stable when they engaged. It was like watching Godzilla break off from laying waste to a tower block so he could give the residents tips on the finer points of dealing with monsters.
England scored off the first of those scrum penalties, after it was kicked to touch, and would have done so again off the second if Tom Curry had not knocked on before making the last pass to Jonny Hill. It wasn’t just the points, though, England’s dominance there completely destabilised Japan in the first half. They were a team under siege, and had so little time and space to work in that they ended up making horrid decisions and throwing harried passes that led to turnovers. Genge was in the thick of it in the loose too, where he came charging out of the line like someone had hidden firecrackers in his pants before the match.
He utterly flattened Dylan Riley in England’s 22, and then did it to Gu, too, when they met in midfield. England won turnovers off both.
Then, for good measure, Genge finished their fourth try to make it 31-6. It was a score that left everyone watching with unanswered questions about exactly how many Japanese tacklers it would take to stop him. Kyle Sinckler had charged once, and been beaten back, when Genge came again fast on to a flat pass from five metres out. He hit Gerhard van den Heever, who slowed him as much as a snagged bramble, and pressed on, carrying the lock Jack Cornelsen on his back and pushing through Tevita Tatafu. By the time he dived over the line Gu had joined in the gang tackle too, so Genge was dragging four men with him.
The man of the match award ended up going to Steward, and isn’t that just a prop forward’s lot. Of course Genge can do a lot of fancy stuff, too – he has a fine pair of hands for a prop – but here he was back to doing the spade work. He epitomised England’s aggressive approach in defence, led the charge in the loose and dominated the scrums. In between it all, he kept up a running dialogue with the referee, James Doleman, about the set pieces. He was at the heart of almost everything England did in the opening 20 minutes, when Japan were blown off the pitch.
Eddie Jones has invested a lot in Genge over the last year by bringing him through into England’s leadership group as he’s tried to rebuild the team. It is easy to see why he likes him. Genge always plays like he has a point to prove.
The trouble with doing it against Japan is that England will not get a lot of credit for it, even though this is the same side that pushed the All Blacks so close just a couple of weeks ago (although, it has to be said, they played a hell of a lot better that day). But still, Genge’s performance was put into some perspective by the way the game changed when Jones took him off after 50 minutes (thinking, presumably, of how important he will be for the team in the fortnight ahead when they play New Zealand and then South Africa). Mako Vunipola came on in his place and Japan, who still had Gu on the pitch, flipped it around and won penalties at both of the next two scrums.
So yes, there are bigger challenges ahead. Given the form Genge is in right now, there will be better performances for them, too.