Preview: England v Fiji
It’s been 1426 days but World Cup rugby is back, starting at Twickenham on Friday when England host Fiji.
The opening game is a dream fixture for fans, less so for Stuart Lancaster, as the World Cup hosts get a first run out against one the most entertaining sides in Test rugby today.
Confidence is high in the England camp after their win over Six Nations champions Ireland less than two weeks ago.
They are short on caps, with an average of 25 to New Zealand’s 48, while their squad is also the youngest on average in the tournament at 26.2 years. Ben Youngs, the England scrum-half, will win his 50th cap.
However, in their arsenal they have a set of young backs all capable of breaking a game up, behind a tough pack that generally is strong in the scrum and line-out even with the recent wobbles in that latter area in the warm-up matches.
Geoff Parling restored order against Ireland with a 14/14 record and the British and Irish Lions lock timed his run to a starting spot later than most but he has slotted into a set of forwards that is more than capable of both competing and dominating the best the world has to offer up front.
It’s out wide where England have become exciting to watch, which wasn’t something being said four years ago during that ill-fated tournament in New Zealand.
Youngs, Brad Barritt and Mike Brown all offer security so that George Ford, Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson can express themselves and willfully disrupt a defence coach’s best plans.
It has taken a while to get to this point and a host of options have been tried, especially in England’s midfield, but finally Lancaster has a team at his disposal that looks complete.
The big questions are whether a side that lacks the experience of competing in the knockout stages of a World Cup can succeed without it – Ben Youngs is the only player who featured against France in the 2011 quarter-final – and just how well Barritt and Joseph can function together with just one game starting together in their lockers.
What’s more, if England’s defence is only slightly off then Fiji will not hesitate when it comes to punishing mistakes.
The Pacific Nations Cup champions were outstanding in the USA and Canada earlier this year when they finished the competition unbeaten.
Similarly in their only warm-up match against Canada, they proved how devastating when their sometimes improbable passes find their target.
John McKee’s appointment has seen a massive change in approach from the top down in Fiji when it comes to the set-piece, both in refining the skills of the current pack while ensuring that young players coming up through the system get the best technical training around.
Not that the New Zealander is turning Fiji into a kicking machine. Far from it. Given the chance, they will swarm all over their opponents and leave any concept of a defensive line in tatters.
This stems from the input of arguably three key players. Leone Nakarawa, for the offloads that come from his elastic arms. Niko Matawalu, the dynamic scrum-half who scores as many tries as he assists with. And finally Nemani Nadolo, best described as a demi-God when considering his size – 195cm, 130kg – coupled with unlikely speed.
England’s analysts will have come up with hours of tape on all three but the beauty about them, and Fiji in general, is that containing their genius isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The hosts will no doubt look to the power of their forwards and set-piece paired with an accurate kicking game to try and keep Fiji subdued, but to do that for a whole 80 minutes would require robots rather than humans.
All of which makes Friday’s opener all the more intriguing. Get ready, because the World Cup is back!
Ones to Watch
For England: Preferred at number eight to Billy Vunipola is Ben Morgan, the Gloucester forward who broke his leg back in January and promised to the England coaches that he would be ready in time to make the World Cup. He wasn’t wrong, and over the years Morgan has provided a number of key interventions his country; notably against France in 2012 and last November with two tries versus Australia. Friday is a chance for him to both improve his match fitness and hold off a charge from Vunipola for his place.
For Fiji: Supporters won’t have any problems pronouncing the names of Metuisela Talebula, Waisea Nayacalevu and Dominiko Waqaniburotu after the first few games, while the aforementioned trio of Nakarawa, Matawalu and Nadolo are class acts. But Fiji’s hopes both on Friday and long-term hinge on the progress of fly-half Ben Volavola. Signed up by the Crusaders for Super Rugby next year, Volavola is raw but an exciting talent, preferred to Josh Matavesi and, Fiji will hope, the man for the future.
Head-to-head: Watching two talented wings in Anthony Watson and Nemani Nadolo face off will be special, but this game hinges on matters in the scrum and Dan Cole facing Campese Ma’afu. This feels like a mismatch on paper and if Cole can convince referee Jaco Peyper early on that he has his opponent on the ropes then the penalties will flow, allowing England to dictate territory.
2012: England won 54-12 at Twickenham
1999: England won 45-24 at Twickenham
1991: England won 28-12 in Suva
1989: England won 58-23 at Twickenham
1988: England won 25-12 in Suva
Prediction: England’s comprehensive 5-0 record over Fiji is unlikely to be blemished, but, with the work that John McKee has done in his short time in charge and the talented players in their side, we are watching the best team Fiji’s population of less than 900,000 has ever produced. England will be tested, and will also win, but the hope is that Friday’s opening World Cup match will set the tone for what is being billed as the biggest Rugby World Cup ever. England by 20.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sam Burgess.
Fiji: 15 Metuisela Talebula, 14 Waisea Nayacalevu, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Gabiriele Lovobalavu, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nikola Matawalu, 8 Sakiusa Masi Matadigo, 7 Akapusi Qera (c), 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Sunia Koto, 1 Campese Ma’afu.
Replacements: 16 Tuapati Talemaitoga, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Isei Colati, 19 Tevita Cavubati, 20 Peceli Yato, 21 Nemia Kenatale, 22 Joshua Matavesi, 23 Aseli Tikoirotuma.
Date: Friday, September 18
Kick-off: 20:00 BST (19:00 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
- Planet Rugby