England did enough in an inspired spell at the start of the second half to make up for any deficiencies in the rest of the match and wrap up the runners-up spot in their World Cup group.
Trailing to the enterprising Fijians close to half time, the hosts scored five tries – two from their record scorer, Ryan Hall – in 15 minutes to run away with the game.
The England coach, Steve McNamara, denied that he had ever been concerned. “I was worried that the players would be worried,” he said. “I felt there were just a few things we needed to change and we’d be alright. It was a real Test match – very tough – but we always knew it would be.”
Before the match, the crowd paid tribute to the former Hull and England full-back and close friend of McNamara, Steve Prescott, who has died at the age of 39 after a long battle against a rare form of stomach cancer. There was a minute’s silence, which turned into a minute’s applause, in memory of one of the game’s bravest players.
He would have loved the scene at the KC Stadium, with a crowd of 25,000-plus urging England to make sure of that runners-up spot.
To achieve that, McNamara started for the first time with his most seasoned combination of props in Sam Burgess and James Graham. Rob Burrow and Liam Farrell got their first taste of the tournament off the bench.
Fiji were without their one fully-fledged superstar, Akuila Uate, who was mysteriously omitted, but that did not prevent them from having the better of a fascinating first half. Not only did they tackle furiously, they also looked dangerous every time they moved the ball.
In the forward exchanges, it was sometimes a little like the Sims Brothers versus the World. Ashton Sims’ tackle stopped Sam Burgess from scoring and sibling Korbin was placed on report for a spear-tackle on Graham.
Fiji almost got their first try, but Daryl Millard was denied by an obstruction in back-play. Their attitude to defence, meanwhile, was shown by the way they got back in numbers to clamp down on a break by Sam Tomkins.
Then, after 33 minutes, the unthinkable. Tariq Sims broke the line and Eloni Vunakece was in support for a try hailed like the second coming by the Fijians in the stadium.
It was the high point of their afternoon. Within three minutes England were level, Kevin Sinfield getting one arm free to pass to Ben Westwood – and then came the purple patch.
Fiji gave a demonstration of how not to start a second half when they allowed the kick to bounce. Sam Burgess retrieved the ball and, two tackles later, scored the try that put England on their way.
“England played real good for 20 minutes,” said the Fiji coach, Rick Stone. “We didn’t see much ball and we didn’t help ourselves.”
Rangi Chase began to get involved, laying on a try for Brett Ferres, before Hall got his first, after a long deliberation by the video referee over his foot position.
Burrow was another player making a point, scoring from George Burgess’ pass after a lovely handling move. Hall rounded off England’s scoring, but brave Fiji got a deserved late try from Semi Radradra.
They now play the winners of Monday’s game between France and Samoa in the quarter finals, whilst England meet the losers. If Fiji play like they did for most of this game, there is still no reason why they should not progress further.