There is no such thing as a bad half-century, as any bat-wielding cricketer will readily confirm, but some half-centuries are more satisfying – and far more significant – than others. England's celebrations at passing the 50 mark towards the end of their first piece of autumn international business at Twickenham were just a little muted, for the very good reason that they had spent more than an hour participating in a beer match masquerading as a Test match.
Not that the Fijians were to blame: the South Seas islanders arrived with a useful back-row combination – both Akapusi Qera, a familiar figure in English rugby, and Api Naikatini, who might have been Lord Lucan in disguise for all the red-rose coaches knew about him – gave the home side a rare old hurry-up in the opening stages of the contest, and there was a wonderful spirit of defiance about the scrum-half Nikola Matawalu, who provided 81,000 members of the paying public with something worthy of the ticket price by scoring the best try of the match.
But the notion that an impoverished team like Fiji, however gifted, could make a stand against a fully professionalised, lovingly prepared and lavishly remunerated side like England on the basis of one meaningful training session (and, it must be reiterated, with some of their best players absent for the most mercenary of reasons) was, and remains, ridiculous. Only under World Cup conditions, when they spend time together, can the islanders hope to be competitive – and the Fijians could not even manage that in New Zealand last year. The rest of the time, they are cannon fodder.
Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, recognised the truth of this following a 54-12 victory of record proportions that might have lured other coaches into a disproportionate response. "We need to sit down together and look at the tape," he said, "because we all know about the challenges waiting for us just around the corner." In other words, it was a reasonable start but nothing more.
Suspicious of hyperbole in the way his predecessor Martin Johnson distrusted centres who preferred passing the ball to smithereening the opposition, Lancaster could not even bring himself to bang the drum on behalf of Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back, who brought a fresh dimension to England's attacking game on Saturday. Encouraged as he may have been by Goode's ability to fix the Fijian tacklers with a shimmy of the hips as a means of buying an extra yard of space for the likes of Charlie Sharples and Manu Tuilagi, the coach was keener to talk about the newcomer's excellent defensive performance against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth last June.
"He showed that day how accomplished he is under the high ball," Lancaster said. "It's a very important aspect of the game: we know that the teams coming to Twickenham over the next three weeks will be far more structured than the Fijians and will apply more pressure. Of course, you need players with footballing intelligence to break down sides like Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and we saw a lot of intelligent rugby from Alex out there. But none of the players are shouting from the rooftops as a result of this performance. We'll need to take things up another couple of levels."
Even so, Goode could hardly have done more to stare down the threat of the Harlequins full-back Mike Brown, who also has designs on the No 15 shirt.
Much the same could be said of Sharples, whose opportunity on the wing came as a direct result of Chris Ashton's inability to stay on the right side of the disciplinary class. Sharples seized the moment and made it his own, roaming from one flank to the other with Ashton-esque freedom and scoring two tries as a result, the first of them very good indeed.
It goes without saying that if he holds his place against the Wallabies – or if Lancaster decides to play Sharples and Ashton together at the expense of Ugo Monye, who allowed the game to pass him by despite the never-ending stream of front-foot ball delivered by the England pack – he will find life a tad more demanding. However poorly the Australians performed in being duffed up by France in Paris at the weekend, their back division will ask questions when they arrive in London, some of which may be unanswerable.
As the Fijians do not have a front row worth a light at the best of times, this was always going to be a cakewalk debut for the new hooker Tom Youngs. Joe Marler and Dan Cole acted as a comfort blanket for the Leicester forward at the set-piece, although both embarrassed themselves in open field when attempting to perform artistic feats not traditionally associated with players of their particular type, and the debutant also hit his targets at the line-out – a major talking point in the build-up to the game.
Yet it was his performance in the loose that caught the eye. Squat, low-slung and quicker than anyone has a right to expect of a 17st sportsman, Youngs cut a dash with a bustling display eerily reminiscent of his recent predecessor Lee Mears, spiced with extra pace and aggression. To his credit, he was one of the first England forwards to take the game by the scruff of the neck after a limp start. By the time the Fijians were dead and buried midway through the second quarter, he was having himself a party.
All of which would have left Twickenham man and woman in an advanced state of happiness but for the simultaneous urge to cry for the Fijians, disorganised at the outset and thoroughly dismantled by the end.
From the moment Toby Flood opened the scoring with a penalty on 19 minutes, the tourists barely laid a hand on the ball. Glen Jackson was big-hearted enough to cut them some slack, even though the referee was controlling an international match for the first time and must have been tempted to do everything by the book, right down to the last comma. Did his sympathetic approach help them? Not really.
When the admirable Matawalu cut loose on 53 minutes – when he took a difficult ball one-handed in his own 22, left Tuilagi and Monye in his wake as he sped up the right, slid an intelligent kick towards the line and evaded Goode's obstructive covering run to beat Brad Barritt to the touchdown – it was a moment to savour. Sadly, it was also a moment that exposed international rugby in the full, ghastly light of its inequality.
England: A Goode; C Sharples, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, U Monye; T Flood, D Care; J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, T Palmer, G Parling, T Johnson, C Robshaw (capt), T Waldrom. Replacements: M Vunipola (for Marler 45), J Launchbury (for Palmer 49), M Brown (for Monye 58), O Farrell (for Flood 58), B Youngs (for Care 58), T Wood (for Johnson 58), D Wilson (for Cole 63), D Paice (for T Youngs 65).
Fiji: S Koniferedi; S Waru, V Goneva, S Naqelevuki, W Votu; M Talebula, N Matawalu; B Makutu, V Veikoso, D Manu (capt), L Nakarawa, A Ratuniyarawa, A Naikatini, M Ravulo, A Qera. Replacements: S Somoca (for Ravulo 28-38, for Makutu 40), J Matavesi (for Koniferedi 40), S Naurere (for Veikoso 45), I Ratuva (for Naikatini 49), R Fatiaki (for Wara 65), M Saulo (for Goneva 67), Ravulo (for Somoca 70), S Kalou (for Ratuniyarawa 70), K Bola (for Votu 73).
Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand).
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