Monday was a national holiday in Japan to honour the elderly. It was fitting, then, that when Billy Vunipola appeared on stage at England’s World Cup welcome ceremony he declared his World Cup wish to be that he and his teammates grow old and grey and still fondly reflect on this tournament. “I wish that whatever we do in the next few weeks will live with us for the rest of our lives.”
If it was a surprise that Vunipola did not opt for what everyone in the audience expected – that England win the World Cup – it was clearly rehearsed and undoubtedly on message. It was a soundbite that points to team unity, or “social cohesion” as Eddie Jones calls it, which has been among the head coach’s top priorities in the buildup to this World Cup.
Vunipola was making a wish because part of the welcome ceremony required a player to paint one eye of a traditional Japanese daruma doll and England’s No 8 got the nod. As and when it comes true, the other eye is to be painted. That it caused much amusement among his teammates certainly suggests there is unity among these players and it must be said they do seem to be enjoying each other’s company in Miyazaki.
Maro Itoje reeled off a few sentences in Japanese at the start of his speech and Ben Youngs also took a turn on stage to receive a tengu mask – considered to frighten away bad spirits and therefore seen as good luck – while the event began with a bang, or lots of them during 10 relentless minutes of taiko martial arts drums. All of the squad received their World Cup welcome medals and caps from one of their former captains and now World Rugby chairman, Bill Beaumont, who delivered a brief speech though hardly Churchillian in tone. Truth be told he was outshone by the governor of Miyazaki, Shunji Kono, who in no uncertain terms urged England to go forth and conquer.
On the whole it was a low-key event, or certainly compared with Wales’s open training session 200 miles to the north, but it served its purpose for the local dignitaries and, more than that, it heightened the sense of anticipation. England have been in Japan since Monday but still do not begin their campaign for days and the coaching staff have explained how the players have been straining at the leash. Itoje more than once told of how he “can’t wait to get going”, while Jonny May is similarly eager for the match against Tonga in Sapporo on Sunday to arrive. “I’ve felt ready for a little while now but it’s just been a case of keeping to the process.”
It is a match England are expected to win comfortably – for they will have far too much firepower for the Pacific Islanders, who are expected to be physical if ultimately inferior. Itoje said England are on red alert, however, pointing to the prowess of Billy and Mako Vunipola, who have strong Tongan heritage. “I’ve seen what those two have done to people! It can be dangerous if you allow it to be,” Itoje said. “We know how physical they are and how much Tonga as a country love rugby. They’ll definitely be up for it. We know that they’re an incredibly physical side. From one to 31 they have big boys who are physical and aggressive. They have huge athleticism as well.”
England have harder tasks further down the line, though May believes this squad contains the most potent attacking threats of all the contenders. It is some statement that may raise a few eyebrows in the New Zealand camp but May is convinced the variety of back-three options England have alongside him in Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Ruaridh McConnochie and Jack Nowell is unrivalled.
“It is like nothing I have ever been a part of,” he said. “I look around the room and the teammates and the talent we have, and depth as well, for me the belief is that we can beat anybody if we are at our best and I genuinely believe we will peak at this World Cup.”
Asked if any other team has such a variety of firepower to compare with England’s, May said: “I would say not. Do teams have great players? Of course they do. It is going to be fine margins. It is a tight tournament in terms of how competitive it is going to be, more than any other World Cup I have seen. It will come down to who produces it on the day and who is ready for it and mentally who can handle it. It is going to be a huge Test but I believe this team is ready for it.”