RWC 2015 England vs Fiji match report: Mike Brown and George Ford earn win after nervy start at Twickenham

England 35 Fiji 11

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The Independent Online

England may expect, but it is not at all clear that England will deliver at their own World Cup. Chris Robshaw’s side found their way past the proudest, most committed of Fijian sides before a Twickenham full house, despite a bad outbreak of first-night nerves and a near terminal case of butterfingered botch-uppery, but there was little in the hosts’ performance to keep Wales or Australia from their slumbers.

England may expect, but it is not at all clear that England will deliver at their own World Cup. Chris Robshaw’s side found their way past the proudest, most committed of Fijian sides before a Twickenham full house, despite a bad outbreak of first-night nerves and a near terminal case of butterfingered botch-uppery, but there was little in the hosts’ performance to keep Wales or Australia from their slumbers.

They saw a lot of the ball and Mike Brown, the heart-and-soul full-back, ended the match with a brace of tries that were fair reward for a courageous performance in both attack and defence. They also claimed a try-scoring bonus point when the replacement No 8 Billy Vunipola smuggled the ball over with the last move of the match.

But with the Fijian captain Akapusi Qera in full warpaint and the centre Vereniki Goneva tackling himself to a standstill – and leaving his many and varied victims in the same state – England’s progress was often slow to the point of stasis. What was more, the scrum failed to achieve the expected dominance and the crucial half-back link between Ben Youngs and George Ford was mediocre at best. Far from establishing a fruitful relationship, they went together like love and divorce.

The early signs were encouraging enough, despite the fumbles: the Fijian front row were shackled and then shattered at the very first scrum – George Ford opened his World Cup account with a nine-iron shot from in front of the sticks – and there was better news by far in the 13th minute when the red-rose forwards pieced together a dynamic driving maul that reached the line on its third high-speed churn.

The outcome? A penalty try, thanks to an illegal intervention by the islanders’ scrum-half Niko Matawalu, who was packed off to the cooler for his trouble.

During his absence, Fiji found themselves a long way up the creek: Ford was warming to his game-managerial task despite the ropey service from Youngs and there would have been a try in the right corner for his Bath clubmate Anthony Watson but for a wondrous tackle by Waisea Nayacalevu. Not that the respite lasted long. Sunia Koto, the Fijian hooker, overcooked the resulting line-out throw, bunging the ball straight to the England flanker Tom Wood, and one clever little Jonathan Joseph tap-pass later, Brown was over for the second try of the night.

But the x-factor in Fijian rugby runs unfathomably deep, and it surged to the surface when Matawalu returned from his 10-minute break without the option.

Taking advantage of an improving set-piece and some bold positioning at the rear of the scrum from the No 8 Sakiusa Matadigo, the scrum-half sniped down the blind side, dummying away from Jonny May and winning the tear-up to the line despite a double tackle from the May-Brown axis.  At first sight, he appeared to have successfully grounded the ball with a long stretch of the right arm, but a pitch-level camera angle made the painful disclosure of a knock-on in the act of scoring.

The South African referee Jaco Peyper had originally awarded the try, but then put things on hold while the television replay system did its worst. It was a depressing moment: the touchdown was certainly incomplete, but no one with a soul would have complained had it been allowed to stand.

Happily for the Fijians – and, it is reasonable to suggest, all those with the spirit of rugby running in their veins – they were able to respond in double-quick time.

England messed up the scrum on their own line, Ben Volavola kicked high and diagonally for Nemani Nadolo stampeding towards the left flag, and the earth shook as the most substantial wing in the sport beat Watson to the catch and landed, heavily but legally, with five precious points in the bag.

Quite what the folk back in Fiji – not just the townspeople in Suva and Nadi, but in isolated villages from the island of Vanua Levu to the Kadavu archipelago – were making of all this was anyone’s guess.

As the head coach John McKee put it so strikingly in his eve-of-match commentary, they would have been “watching in their thousands, some of them in places where the whole population gathers together around a single television set with a generator and a satellite dish”.

If, as Mckee argued, rugby is a way of life there, it was hard to think of a more life-enhancing moment than this sudden outburst of attacking defiance.

A fascinating, if error-strewn opening period ended with an exchange of penalties between Ford, who hit the spot after Goneva had been caught offside amid the chaos of another England handling spillage, and Nadolo, who took over the marksmanship duties from Volavola and capitalised when Robshaw failed to roll away from the ball at a Fijian ruck.

After the interval, the two sides pretty much neutralised each other. Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, started unloading his bench as early as the 52nd minute – a sure sign of profound concern – and while Vunipola in particular made an impact worthy of the name (how the back-rower Tongan ancestry loves these South Seas-style man tests) the alarming figure of Nadolo was also putting himself about with ever greater effect.

Lancaster’s interjection did pay dividends, however, because Owen Farrell, on for Ford at outside-half, made a couple of crucial moves to tie things up in the final quarter. The first was a penalty on 67 minutes to take England to 21-11.

The second was an inspired flip-up to Brown, who duly bagged the clinching try following a slippery midfield break from Joseph.

 

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