Samoa-born center Manu Tuilagi scored two tries in the first half to put England clear and Tonga didn't come close to an upset in the Pool C game at Sapporo Dome. England made 13 handling errors and missed out on more tries with some inaccurate finishing. And the performance wasn't up to the standard of England's comprehensive wins over Ireland and Italy in its last warmups.
But coach Eddie Jones was happy, he said. Happy to get out of Sapporo with a win, a bonus point and no major injuries at the start of a tough group campaign that will see the 2003 World Cup winner face Argentina and France back-to-back in its last pool games.
"We're really pleased. We came here to get five points, we got five points. We got no injuries. We know we can play better," Jones said. One overwhelming positive for England was the performance of Tuilagi, who relished taking on the Tongans.
His tries showed the range of his talents. He bashed his way through a pack of Tongan defenders for his first. Then he skipped clear out wide for his second after England created an overlap on the left and wing Jonny May fed him an inside ball.
But England didn't secure the bonus point until three minutes from the end through replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie. Hooker Jamie George had England's third try early in the second half from a rolling maul.
England generally played within itself, maybe with an eye on those bigger battles later in the pool. Jones, as he noted, has been to a few World Cups. He coached Australia to the 2003 final, was an assistant coach of South Africa's title-winning team in 2007, and masterminded Japan's stunning upset of the Springboks four years ago.
"The World Cup is not a 100-meter sprint," he said. "You don't have to come out of the blocks and be fantastic. You have to be steady and you have to improve." England's errors cost it a more comprehensive victory. Flanker Sam Underhill dropped a pass five meters out with the English lining up to score early in the second half. Henry Slade threw a pass into touch when all he had to do was find fullback Elliot Daly for a try.
England also had two tries ruled out by the Television Match Official in the first half after players went over the tryline but didn't ground the ball. But the English got what they wanted to lead Pool C and came out in one piece against a Tongan team with a reputation for bruising physicality.
Jones was also victorious on his return to Japan. Japan's former coach was given a huge cheer before kickoff when his name and face came up on the big screen. Tuilagi's tries in the 24th and 31st minutes put England in control for good after Tonga, ranked outside the world's top 10, had held the No. 3-ranked English to 3-3 through the first quarter.
Tuilagi threw off Tongan defenders and muscled his way over after a five-meter scrum and a move down the short side. Tuilagi's score was confirmed by the TMO just a minute after England had a try ruled out by the TMO because Underhill didn't ground. Tuilagi's midfield break also started the move for Underhill to go over and the bustling center was clearly England's best player.
"We tried to contain him," said Tonga captain Siale Piatau, who played opposite Tuilagi in midfield. "But obviously when you have someone like Manu's talent..." There were four TMO referrals in total in the first half, one to award Tuilagi's first try, two to disallow tries, and the other to check the legality of a crunching tackle by Tonga flanker Sione Kalamafoni on Anthony Watson. The TMO ruled it was fine.
The forwards took George over in the corner for the third try and England showed two flashes of backline brilliance right at the end when backs Watson and Jonathan Joseph made searing breaks. Watson's 70-meter run was wasted by Slade's loose pass, but Joseph used his run to put Cowan-Dickie clear for the bonus-point clinching try in the last few minutes.
Only then was the job done.
More AP Rugby World Cup: https://www.apnews.com/RugbyWorldCup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports