There were pass marks for England’s bright young things in a seven-try victory against the USA, but not a great deal more than that. Joe Cokanasiga marked his first appearance since the World Cup with two tries and there were some impressive individual showings among the new faces, but there were also four tries against and ultimately a sense that there is plenty of room for improvement.
Only in glimpses did it threaten to be the sort of sparkling all-court performance the 10,000 in attendance had wanted to see, and though England’s side were raw, the USA have not played since the World Cup, only came together at the start of the week and were missing their best player through injury. Seen against that backdrop, this England performance was acceptable rather than exceptional.
Jones selected eight debutants in his starting XV and four more on the bench, meaning England gave out the most caps in a single match since 1947. He urged all of them to seize their opportunity, to make the jersey their own, and while it would be stretching it to say any of them have managed just that, Freddie Steward looked particularly assured at full-back, every time Marcus Smith was on the ball there was a crackle of anticipation and Harry Randall looked sharp at scrum-half at times. There was plenty of grunt up front and the hope must be that there is a more fluid look to the side next week against Canada.
England had four tries by half-time, including first scores at Test level for Sam Underhill and Ollie Lawrence. Cokanasiga’s two were also significant – coming in his first appearance for England since these two sides met at the 2019 World Cup. But there was a lingering degree of rust to England – at one stage players could be heard lamenting the fact that they had muddled preset moves together.
The USA opened the scoring with a penalty from Luke Carty on the halfway line but straight from Smith’s restart, England had their opening try. Max Malins fielded the ball wide on the left and dashed his way towards the corner. He did not quite have the pace to get to the line but had the wherewithal to find Underhill in support. The openside flanker was arguably England’s most industrious player throughout, giving a reminder to Jones of what his side sorely missed during the Six Nations.
Malins hurt his arm in the buildup to that try and was forced off a few minutes later. With Jones opting for a 6-2 split on the bench it forced a considerable reshuffle, with Lawrence moved out to the left wing and Jacob Umaga coming on at inside-centre. It denied Jones the chance to have a closer look at Lawrence and Henry Slade together in midfield – that was his go-to pairing at the start of the Six Nations – but the Worcester man was on hand to finish on the left after a fine move from right to left.
Cokanasiga’s first came from a trademark quickly taken penalty from Randall, the second from a delightful delayed pass from Smith, albeit against a defence that was, by this stage, creaking. England then lost Lawrence before the break after a nasty clash of heads with the USA full-back, Marcel Brache, forcing Jones into another change, with Dan Robson the next to be deployed out of position on the wing.
The USA began the brighter in the second half and Jones will not be pleased at the ease with which England’s opponents drove their maul over the line – Jamason Fa’anana-Shultz awarded the visitors’s first try. A flurry of replacements from both sides inevitably disrupted the flow of the match but one of them, the Newcastle hooker Jamie Blamire, had his first England try on debut, barely a minute after coming on. He charged down the USA scrum-half Ruben de Haas and stretched his way over.
To their credit, the USA stuck at it and replied in kind when Cam Dolan charged down Randall and dotted the ball down for his side’s second before Smith’s try, from all of a yard, brought about the biggest cheer of the day. Randall then scored a lovely individual try with a dummy to open the gap but two quickfire tries late on for the USA – one a driving maul with Hanco Germishuys, the other a counterattack finished by Christian Dyer – left Jones with plenty to ponder.