RWC 2015: England's edge at the scrum and line-out will deliver a smooth start, writes Brian Ashton

The Fijian props must be dreading their evening out with the England front row

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The Independent Online

My message to England supporters ahead of the big kick-off this evening is a simple one: stay calm, don’t panic, it’ll be all right on the night. I confidently expect Stuart Lancaster’s side to win by 20 points minimum: not because Fiji have lost their attacking devil or are even less organised than usual – neither of those things is remotely true – but because the home side still hold the cards that count in World Cup rugby. Where are those cards played? At scrum and line-out time.

here’s been plenty of stuff flying around about the Fijians – about how England have to guard against their dynamic runners in broken field and make sure they don’t put themselves in mortal danger by leaving themselves open to those big-shot South Seas tackles. I don’t disagree with any of that: get it wrong against these blokes and you tend to learn some painful lessons.

It is also worth remembering that Fiji have a track record, albeit intermittent in the extreme, of giving the top-tier nations a hurry-up at these tournaments. But even if they win some ball, they are light at outside-half. Ben Volavola, who starts this game in the No 10 shirt, has been playing his rugby in Sydney with the Waratahs. Josh Matavesi, the marginally more experienced guy on the bench, plays in Wales with Ospreys. Neither of those teams chuck professional contracts around like confetti, but when you set the two players against people as talented as George Ford and Owen Farrell, the comparison is not kind.

And as I’ve tried to indicate, they may not see much in the way of possession anyway. The Fijian props must be dreading their evening out with the England front row and, by the same yardstick, I can see real problems ahead for the underdogs at the line-out. England’s organiser in the latter area, Geoff Parling, is likely to put them under serious pressure on their own throw and force them to go for “banker ball” options at the front, thereby minimising the space available to their threatening runners in midfield.

To my mind, the only way Fiji can hope to cause an upset is to start well – to get off the defensive line at the speed of light, bang a few Englishmen into the middle of next month, dislodge the ball in the process and run it in from miles out. It’s a grand theory and if the islanders make it happen, it will be well worth watching. Sadly, from the entertainment point of view it’s a long shot. I won’t be surprised if a Fijian wing is one of the leading try-scorers at this tournament. I will be surprised if he’s actually playing for Fiji.

 

Even if the devout men from the South Seas find themselves in need of divine inspiration, Pool A is still a beast of a group. You’ll be less than amazed to learn that as an Australian – yes, I know I spent some years in the England set-up, but blood ties run deep – I’m excited about the Wallaby potential in this competition. I’ve written in these pages before about my admiration for the head coach, Michael Cheika. Now that the big event is upon us, I’m more convinced than ever that he’s pulling all the right levers.

If there’s an area of vulnerability in the squad, it’s at hooker. Michael has taken the “two No 2s” route rather than include a third specialist, which seems to me a clear indication that Stephen Moore, the captain, will spend an awful lot of time on the field in an extremely demanding position. When I was on the England coaching staff, plotting the downfall of my homeland, Moore was one of the men who gave us cause for concern: however poor the Wallabies were at set piece, we knew we’d get something back from him. They’re a far better scrummaging unit now, but they still need him on the pitch.

 

As for Wales, the other big hitters in the pool... well, their cage has been well and truly rattled by the injuries to Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Webb. They place a lot of emphasis on their physical preparation and Warren Gatland, their coach, is pretty smart at getting his players absolutely right for the back end of tournaments. But will they reach the back end? Not in my book. I take England and Australia to qualify for the quarters and whoever tops a brutal group could have just enough juice to make it to the last weekend.

In signing off, a word about Sam Burgess. (Everyone else on the planet has had his say, so I’m keen to speak up on the subject). Nobody can be sure whether the Burgess experiment will work for England, but I credit Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and the rest of the hierarchy for succeeding in selling the vision – to the Bath club, to the Rugby Football Union, to the player himself.

I’m sure Sam was always going to make the squad. What he contributes from here on in, only time will tell. My hunch? He’ll do some damage off the bench and repay at least some of the faith placed in him. And I’m not saying that just because I work with his mum!

Brian Smith was England’s attack coach at the 2011 Rugby World Cup

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