Every word of the opening ceremony seemed loaded with metaphorical significance. “We all know in life we have one chance to make a first impression. Let’s not let them down,” bellowed Will Greenwood as it all began. He was trying to encourage some mass singing, and though he little imagined when holding the World Cup aloft 12 years ago that he would be urging the massed ranks of Twickenham to join in “Sweet Caroline” 13 years later, the words were fitting for those who have followed in his shoes and who you hoped might have heard him, down in the away dressing room. “We are the lucky ones,” Greenwood said. “We are here.”
The ceremony was much that Stuart Lancaster will hope this England team will be – imaginative, uncomplicated, incisive; not always too earnest. A decent one-liner for royalty – Prince Harry’s “Don’t worry Jonny. It’ll never catch on” – as a certain other member of Clive Woodward’s class enacted the role of William Webb Ellis in the film which preceded the choreography.
It all became interminable for England. Nick Easter on the pitch tempting fate with his talk of England finding the four tries for a bonus point. More intruders on the field than players as they settled to a huddle, television crews squatting to clear the last of the mess behind them. And bathos when the big-screen countdown had concluded. The kick-off had to wait for the last of them to clear the pitch. The clouds parted to reveal an expanse of blue when all this began. It was drizzle by the time it had concluded.
It helped that the Fijians looked even more encumbered by the weight of the occasion than England did and it was telegraphed. The fly-half Ben Volavola’s wretched attempt to collect George Ford’s first kick told the story. We had been programmed to know the dangers of Ford depositing such an elementary ball straight into the hands of a team with players who can fly. Volavola scrambled in vain to take hold.
Ben Youngs found it no easier, though. The improvement in his tactical kicking these past few years has been a measure of the way the Lancaster science, honing the fine details, can make players. But nowhere in Youngs’ mental image of how it would be when the moment final arrived would Volavola’s first kick-off of this tournament be one he failed to collect, bouncing in front of him instead. Youngs’ box kick, blocked as he sought to clear from his own 22, was another of the signals that the background noise and the occasion’s significance can’t always be swatted away.
Yes, it was a World Cup opener if ever there was one, written through with the tension of those who have been talking about it for far too long. There were others who cursed the struggle to establish a lead that would put the nerves away and allow the kind of expression of English rugby to send an early message through the tournament. Mike Brown, heart on his sleeve as always, acknowledged his own poor kick for touch and struggled to collect a delicious, cushioned cross kick that Nikola Matawulu sent beyond the try-line.
The wings were the ones who lived up to their publicity as England found their level and went to work: Anthony Watson, the winger with the spirit of Rory Underwood, who has certainly got a step and is mighty under a high ball. His mental image? A night working in tandem with George Ford, another from the West Country. The roar when he seized Ford’s lofted ball from the clutches of Nemani Nadolo was one of the first to lift this roof.
You felt that the opening try, five minutes later, might break the tension because the beautiful self-expression we have come to know from these Pacific Island warriors was slow to materialise. Matawalu departed to the sin bin for 10 minutes. Volavola retained the kicking duties for half an hour until the embarrassment of strike which failed to reach the posts. Nadolo, the wrecking ball blessed with a sweet right foot, assumed the role and was also inconsistent.
But though there was an imprint of English superiority – a beautiful reading of the line-out ball by Tom Wood, an exquisite release by Jonathan Joseph to see Brown over the line – what we witnessed took us away from the occasion and back to the reality of what England have been these past few years: a good rugby side which struggles to crush the life out of sides. The moment which brought Twickenham to its feet and thrilled belonged to Matawula, capturing a ball from the scrum, weaving beyond Jonny May and seeming to have taken the ball over the try-line before a combination of the wing’s covering tackle and Brown’s desperate touch combined to release the ball from his hand before he had place it down.
The try which followed – Nandolo’s height proving insuperable when he and Watson competed for Volavola’s up-and-under – was an object lesson in the consequences of conceding a scrum on the five-metre line.
It was Nadolo’s break beyond the England defence just beyond the hour, pushing away players as if they were not there, that brought the deficit to seven points. Brown saw them home. Owen Farrell’s offload to him was the reminder, in the third try, of what Lancaster has in his ranks. It could not have been later and by a finer margin that Billy Vunipola’s try brought the bonus points and those in red shirts punched the night air.
The margin of victory was within the range of English expectation, thought the relief will be tempered by the knowledge that better must follow.
The compere screamed “England lead Group A” and gave us more manufactured hyperbole. “Should responsibility make you timid? Should discipline weigh you down?” was another of the lines from that opening ceremony. At times last night, they did.
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