England left it late but came away from their Rugby World Cup opener with a bonus point 35-11 win over a punishing Fiji side at Twickenham.
Late tries from Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola in many ways glossed over a number of issues for Stuart Lancaster and the rest of his coaches to address – although they had time to do so during multiple lengthy stoppages involving the television match official.
England never hit the pace they set at their best against Ireland in their final warm-up match due to a combination of clear jitters along with Fiji’s refusal to let them settle.
Head coach John McKee and scrum coach Alan Muir’s work with Fiji means they are no longer a soft touch at the scrum, that crucial area in the past where teams have dominated them. No more, on this basis at least.
That secure set-piece allowed the likes of Niko Matawalu and Nemani Nadolo to do what they do best – run riot at the opposition’s defence. Combined with a robust work-rate at the breakdown, England were never comfortable until there were seven minutes to go before Vunipola struck in extra time.
Much has been made in England about recapturing the spirit of the Olympics, far from a simple task, but there were moments during the opening ceremony where 2012 felt like yesterday.
Charting the history of the sport with cameos from Jonny Wilkinson and Prince Harry along with 20 legends each representing their own countries, it was certainly spectacular. Twickenham has never looked or sounded anything like it.
Not everyone though could handle the bright lights – young Fiji fly-half Ben Volavola knocking on with no one around him, apart from the eyes of the world anyway. It would turn out to be his only mistake of the night.
England showed their upper hand in the scrum at the first attempt, as the first points of the Rugby World Cup came from the boot of George Ford. 3-0, three minutes played.
Volavola’s unfortunate knock-on was followed by hard luck, a touchline penalty just drifting onto the left post at the end of it’s flight.
Fiji’s rush defence initially kept England’s attack contained until a dangerous tackle from Dominiko Waqaniburotu handed the hosts a penalty deep in Fiji’s half.
England’s maul will feature heavily over the next few weeks and Fiji had no answers to their efficient drive as it rumbled through the 22, ending with a penalty try, their 100th try under Stuart Lancaster, and a yellow card for Fijian scrum-half Niko Matawalu.
Even mentioning the word ‘TMO’ after this World Cup might send people into a fit of rage, and another reviewed incident against Fiji – for Apisalome Ratuniyarawa not using his arms while hitting a ruck – handed England the territory to create their second try.
A turnover at the lineout gave England space out wide and Mike Brown held the last tackler before diving over to make it 15-0.
Matawalu returned from the bin and made an instant impact when he seemed to have scored one of the greatest individual World Cup tries. A blindside burst off the scrum twisted Jonny May inside out and the pacy scrum-half sprinted down the touchline, only to drop the ball as he reached out for the line. Referee Jaco Peyper originally awarded the score before referring to the TMO prior to the conversion being taken.
England’s scrum though began to creak, dangerously so in front of their own line as Fiji turned the ball over short of the English line.
Volavola’s cross-field kick put a back-pedalling Anthony Watson up against all 130kg of Nemani Nadolo. Inevitably, the Crusaders wing won the aerial battle to score Fiji’s first try and make it 15-5.
Ford and crowd favourite Nadolo traded penalties but Ford missed the chance to increase the lead with a strike from a long way out on the angle just before half-time, meaning England were ahead by ten at the interval.
A 47-metre effort from Nadolo at the start drifted wide in a scrappy opening to the second half. England made four changes looking to lift the tempo but Fiji’s scrum continued to impress with another penalty win.
Time and again the Pacific Nations Cup champions make England look ordinary, limiting their attack and disrupting any splutters of tempo they created with good line speed in defence.
Fiji’s aggresion at the breakdown earned Nadolo another penalty attempt which he failed to convert. Volavola resumed the kicking duties and was successful with a penalty after a monstrous Nadolo break, to make it 18-11 with Fiji on top.
Brown, Billy and Mako Vunipola combined through three phases to move England 80 metres up the field to earn a penalty which Farrell converted, but Fiji continued to make things difficult.
Only when Brown scored again did England look home and dry, the full-back doing well to juggle an offload off the ground and then hold off two Fiji tacklers to score.
England searched for the bonus point score with time running out and Fiji out of steam and after Brown was stopped by an incredible tip tackle, Billy Vunipola did enough to power his way just to the line for that crucial bonus point try.
Man of the Match: Tom Wood impressed in the England forwards, while Nemani Nadolo was a constant threat with the ball in hand for Fiji supported well by a top effort from the Fijian front row. But Mike Brown scoops the honour for his two tries.
Moment of the Match: At one point it looked like one of the great Rugby World Cup solo tries, but despite Jaco Peyper awarding the score Niko Matawalu’s incredible effort was ruled out. Fiji scored soon after, but it was a special run.
Villain of the Match: Due to various stoppages the first half took 54 minutes. Say no more.
Tries: Penalty Try, Brown 2, B Vunipola
Cons: Ford, Farrell 2
Pens: Ford 2, Farrell
Pens: Nadolo, Volavola
Yellow Card: Matawalu
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.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (Ireland), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
- Planet Rugby