Stuart Lancaster’s last rallying cry before the World Cup began under Twickenham’s Friday-night lights included a definition of what it means to be English, a thorny subject that commentators from Martin Amis and Douglas Adams to Will Self and Jeremy Clarkson have taken a stab at.
“Never taking a backward step,” was one plank of the England head coach’s version – a serviceable maxim for any rugby team, not that Lancaster’s own were able to manage it throughout a win over Fiji that did not bear the obvious hallmark of potential tournament winners.
Mike Brown’s two tries and generally impressive incursions that gave shape and impetus to some stodgy English attacks were seized on by Lancaster, whose team were justifiably satisfied in the round with the maximum points gained from a 35-11 win and a try-scoring bonus.
England 35 Fiji 11 player ratings
England 35 Fiji 11 player ratings
1/22 Mike Brown - 6/10
Took his try well but will be unhappy to have lost aerial contest to Nadolo. Crucial intervention saw chalked off Matawalu’s score.
2/22 Anthony Watson - 5
Little he could do when defending against Nadolo in the air and dragged into touch when given half a chance to score.
3/22 Jonathan Joseph - 5
Quick hands to feed Brown for the try but dropped simple pass and looked off the pace with little chance to impose.
4/22 Brad Barritt - 6
Penalised in the first half for not rolling but defensively astute in holding out the powerful Fijians.
5/22 Jonny May - 7
Needed all of his pace to catch Matawalu on the break but contested in the air superbly and can be pleased with his work.
6/22 George Ford - 7
Dealt with the occasion well from the start but lacked the running game that we’ve been expecting of him.
7/22 Ben Youngs - 5
Allowed the kick-off to bounce and his first-half box-kicking was poor. Hauled off early in the second half to cap a miserable 50th appearance.
8/22 Joe Marler - 7
Got a challenge and then some from Saulo, and will take heart from a good first outing. Replaced by Vunipola shortly after the break.
9/22 Tom Youngs - 6
Alarm bells were ringing when he missed his first lineout but he recovered well with string runs and a 70-minute-plus shift.
10/22 Dan Cole - 7
Won his first battle with Ma’afu and remained a rock for the English front-row that enjoyed the front-foot all night.
11/22 Courtney Lawes - 6
Outmuscled in the collision in his one meaningful run and didn’t have as big an impact England would have liked.
12/22 Geoff Parling - 6
Ran the lineout well but appeared to take a knock to the head early in the second and departed soon after.
13/22 Tom Wood - 6
Snatched a lineout on the Fijian line but needless throw around the neck of an opponent cost England in good position.
14/22 Chris Robshaw - 6
Guilty of not rolling away but otherwise a strong, if quiet performance from the England skipper.
15/22 REPLACEMENTS: Rob Webber - 5
Given little time to make an impact thanks to Youngs’ long shift, but his time is likely to come against Uruguay.
16/22 Mako Vunipola - 5
As is his way he lost the first scrum following his introduction, but didn’t concede another penalty there on in.
17/22 Kieran Brookes - 5
Cole’s spell in the front-row gave Brookes minimal time to do anything of note.
18/22 Joe Launchbury - 6
Important tackle on Nadolo halted a threatening attack and demonstrated that the wing just that – a wing.
19/22 Billy Vunipola - 6
Strong running from the moment he came on suggested he had a point to prove, and his barging runs fulfilled his intention.
20/22 Richard Wigglesworth - 6
Two good breaks that carried possession into the Fiji half and his passing was precise and sharp.
21/22 Owen Farrell - 6
Goal-kicking as faultless as expected and controlled the game when Fiji were threatening to ruin the party.
22/22 Sam Burgess - 6
Impressed when he came on with two lovely offloads releasing Wood and Brown respectively.
“Browny got the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half,” Lancaster said of the Harlequins full-back, “and it was his tenacity to break tackles and win collisions that got us that fourth try.
“He’s rock-solid at the back, he was in position every time, and his attacking game was what made a point of difference.”
But it was surely no accident that England offered up two props yesterday morning to analyse the night before, which, amazingly considering all the talk of leaving no stone unturned, contained an admission that the replacement No 8 Billy Vunipola – who scored the valuable fourth try – had no idea bonus points are in use in the World Cup, unlike the Six Nations’ Championship.
Among a plethora of small details that might worry England, the pack took one of those backward steps on their own put-in at the five-metre line that led to Fiji’s try by Nemani Nadolo. “We engaged, they [the Fijians] tried to take away our tighthead, so they moved around the loosehead side,” was how Dan Cole, the 56-cap England tighthead prop, began his explanation.
“The No 6 was in [England loosehead Joe] Marler’s ribs. It all went round and then stood up and the ball spewed out. Do I agree with the outcome? No. Am I bothered? Yes. Do I think more has been made of it than the actual scrum? Probably.”
England omitted the bulky Bath lock Dave Attwood from their World Cup squad, leaving four lighter men to choose from in the second row. Geoff Parling was picked on Friday to provide line-out direction, but the knock-on effect may have been destabilisation in the scrum, as the right-hand lock scrimmaged directly behind Cole.
“Would I love a 150kg, 6ft 10in lock behind me who’ll make me look really good? Yes,” said the commendably candid Cole, exaggerating the figures for effect, as Attwood in fact weighs 119kg.
“But you’ve got to work with what you’ve got,” Cole continued. “Geoff and Courtney Lawes are doing a great job. We had that one bad scrum on our line, but I think the rest of the time they were in there pushing. It’s all very well having someone massive, but if they’re not going to do it consistently, you don’t know where you stand. I’ve got no issues with Geoff behind me.”
Lancaster appeared unlikely to make many changes for the meeting with Wales next Saturday, although he praised the impact of England’s bench players who included Vunipola’s propping brother Mako.
“When we meet each September we set a target of wanting to be the best pack in the world,” Mako said. “We look at our scrum as a weapon in this tournament.”
The Welsh and Australia, plus other opponents waiting down the line, will be keen to test this theory as Lancaster and his players contemplate the biggest fortnight of their rugby careers. The absence of the suspended hooker Dylan Hartley has ceded the hooker’s berth to Tom Youngs – brilliant around the field but lacking the Northampton man’s height and weight.
England’s starting XV looked a little heavy-legged, but rugby is an 80-minute contest – or a shade under a drawn-out two hours, when multiple refereeing decisions are subjected to television replays – and they doused enough Fijian fire to allow Sam Burgess, Owen Farrell and others from the bench to look good.
Lancaster said being “locked in the changing rooms for half an hour” while the opening ceremony was taking place hadn’t helped. There was talk of nerves as hosts in the first match, of the greasy ball in the rain and so on.
No one mentioned that while Fiji may be ranked ninth in world rugby, if this was football they might be more like 49th. A win by 24 points? This was about par for potential world champions, or even a stroke or two out.
The Twickenham crowd, wonderfully en fête before kick-off, had sentimentally cheered a former lock of some heft, Martin Johnson, during the opening ceremony – preferring to remember, as they should, his playing glory of 2003 over the managerial mishaps of 2011 – but they drowned out the Fijian Cibi war dance with the disdain recently accorded to the All Blacks’ Haka.
Here the World Cup organisers’ earnest message of inclusivity got lost a bit. Still, there are six weeks to go. Plenty of time to show some love for Romanians, Georgians, Americans and the rest. And at least England were nothing like as slowly away as the poor souls delayed for hours afterwards by a person on the line at Twickenham station.
1987 lost to Australia 19-6 – out in quarter-finals
1991 lost to New Zealand 18-12 – lost in final
1995 beat Argentina 24-18 – out in semi-finals
1999 beat Italy 67-7 – out in quarters
2003 beat Georgia 84-6 – won the Cup
2007 beat USA 28-10 – lost in final
2011 beat Argentina 13-9 – out in quarters
2015 beat Fiji 35-11.