RWC 2015 - England vs Fiji: England are ready to make statement of intent on the world stage

Hosts can put down marker against Fiji in tournament opener

Chris Hewett
Thursday 17 September 2015 19:40
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The England team during training this week
The England team during training this week

History will not quite be made if England fail to win the opening game of their own World Cup at Twickenham this evening: as tournament hosts the first time round, they were beaten by New Zealand in a curtain-up contest on the same rectangle of grass back in 1991. But if finishing second to the All Blacks was no crime, defeat by Fiji would very definitely be criminal. The whole lot of them could end up in the Tower.

The Pacific islanders believe, quite genuinely, that they can upset the apple cart – that they can generate a front-page story with virtually every sensational ingredient under the sun, leaving aside sex and the royal family. Which is why England, pummelled and pampered in equal measure over the course of a three-month training camp that probably cost double their opponents’ annual rugby budget, are just a little itchy about this one. They fear a series of “Uh-Oh” moments.

And the underdogs have “Uh-Oh” players coming out of their cauliflower ears, in all areas of the team. All areas, that is, bar one. When it comes to the front row of the scrum, an age-old South Seas weak point, the Fijians appear horribly understrength. They do not have a single prop forward currently playing club rugby at elite level – the Second Division in France is about as good as it gets – and there is not a rugby man or woman in England who does not expect the red-rose set-piece specialists to feast on the carcass of a slaughtered pack.

All of which put Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, in a delicate either-or position ahead of yesterday’s eve-of-match discussion. The old Leicester hard-head had a choice: he could either talk up the Fijians as a truly significant threat to red-rose title ambitions in an effort to minimise the risk of overconfidence, or he could highlight the quality of his own players’ physical preparation and wax lyrical about them being one step closer to the glittering prize if they get it right. In the event, he decided on the second approach.

“Our players are fitter than they’ve ever been – they’ve been recording personal bests in training and the data doesn’t lie – so I’m excited for them,” he said, in a tone of purest John Bullishness. “This is the time of their lives. Yes, the Fijians will pose challenges across the board, but you expect that from any opposition. We’re are a handful as well and we’re ready for them. They have to stop us.” Leaving aside the All Blacks, who unfailingly contrive to face first-night opponents of questionable quality when they stage these global events on home turf, World Cup hosts have never had the easiest of rides in round one.

South Africa, fresh back in international rugby after years of apartheid-stained isolation, played Australia, the reigning champions, in 1995; Wales received a hard run-out from Argentina in Cardiff four years later. The South Americans also gave the Wallabies plenty to think about in Sydney in 2003 (but for the refereeing, they might well have won) before beating France in Paris in 2007 – a result that wreaked such havoc for the remainder of the tournament, it became known to those who treasure unpredictability as the “gift that just keeps giving”.

A Fijian victory here would cause even more carnage: this is, after all, the first fixture in the “pool of death”, and England are rather banking on a bonus-point win ahead of the deeply serious confrontations with Wales and Australia over the next 15 days. But the overwhelming likelihood must be that the hosts will impose sufficient order on proceedings to avoid the French fate of eight years ago.

Quite conceivably, they could emerge from the match with a heightened sense of their own potential. If Joe Marler, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole reduce the Fijian scrum to its component parts, few will expire from shock. If the attacking spirits in an increasingly bold back division – Jonathan Joseph, Jonny May, Anthony Watson – take on the likes of Vereniki Goneva, Metuisela Talebula and the outhouse-sized Nemani Nadolo and come up smelling of red roses, even the supremely dangerous Wallabies may sit up and take notice.

For all the talk of Fiji’s capacity to make fools of the best when a game is allowed to shed its structure, the chances are that Stuart Lancaster’s lovingly prepared team will choke off the islanders inside 50 minutes and then go on to outscore them on the try count, just as they did in all five previous meetings between the countries. By way of reinforcing the point, England have run in 26 tries against the Fijians since they first faced them in Suva almost three decades ago. The islanders have managed only 10.

Yet if England have never lost to these rivals, it is equally true to say that there has never been an England-Fiji game quite like this one. The occasion is tailor-made for hassle of one kind or another: the opening ceremony will complicate things for both teams on the warm-up front; there is sure to be a sense of trepidation in each camp, given the unique circumstances in which the players find themselves; it may even rain. A wet ball, frazzled nerves and all-over body tackles measuring Force 12 on the Scale of Big Hits? It sounds like a recipe for chaos.

Two of England’s senior forwards, the lock Geoff Parling and the flanker Tom Wood, materialised in public yesterday to emphasise the overriding need for coolness and calmness amongst the red-rose collective. They were right to do so. A World Cup opener is not the place for panic or frenzy or indiscipline of any description. If England keep it clean at the breakdown and tidy at the set piece, they should be able to put this trial behind them and move towards Wales with a sense of relish.

If, on the other hand, they mess up and allow the Fijians to run them into the Twickenham dirt, they will leave the stadium in the company of a dozen Beefeaters.

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