England are on their way. The chariot is rolling. The host nation claimed the win they needed to ignite their World Cup campaign, but this was not a performance to strike terror into the other leading nations.
After the pomp of the opening ceremony at Twickenham, full of fireworks, lasers and flame-throwers, the lights briefly threatened to go out on Stuart Lancaster’s side in this tournament opener. They roared into a 15-0 lead after just 22 minutes, to suggest that a potentially awkward Pool A fixture could turn into a procession, but ultimately it was no such thing.
Fiji were all at sea – apparently overcome by the occasion – for much of the first half, but once they gained a foothold and shed their inhibitions, they caused all manner of trouble for the home team. Frankly, if they had a goal-kicker of adequate Test standard, they would have been in range of an historic upset in the closing stages. Instead, England were able to make the game safe with his second try of the night by full-back Mike Brown, before Billy Vunipola capped an impressive cameo with the late try which earned a bonus which may prove so crucial in the weeks to come. Yet, for all the triumphalism in the stands, there would have been a hefty dose of relief among the Red Rose hierarchy.
In front of the watching world, there was a slapstick start to the tournament as the downpour just prior to kick-off made handling difficult. There were countless early fumbles right from the off, but also a statement of intent from the home pack.
Following all the talk about Fiji’s forwards making great strides in the set-piece, England promptly monstered them in the first scrum, in the second minute of the match. The up-shot was a penalty which Ford dispatched to register the first points of the tournament.
Moments later, Ben Volavola’s first shot at the other end glanced off the wrong side of a post. The Fiji fly-half’s kicking at goal was unconvincing enough for him to surrender that role to giant wing Nadolo before the first half was over.
Yet, the major problems for the Pacific islanders lay in the one-sided contest up front. In the 13th minute, England simply bulldozed their way to a first try. From a lineout on the left, the home forwards pounded through feeble resistance with a drive which took them all the way to the line.
Referee Jaco Peyper awarded a penalty try and sin-binned Fijian scrum-half Nikola Matawalu for deliberately attempting to collapse the maul.
Ford landed the straight conversion, it was 10-0, England had a numerical advantage and there was already a sense within the stadium that an unexpected rout was on the cards. That optimism among the partisan crowd was reinforced soon after when Lancaster’s men claimed a second try.
They came close when Anthony Watson was tackled into touch just short after a strong run and shrewd pass by Ben Morgan, but the hosts duly struck seconds later. Having pounced on a loose Fijian lineout, the ball was worked out to Mike Brown wide on the left and with the defence in front of him hopelessly stretched, he surged through a gap to score.
This time, Ford’s wide conversion was off target, but England were in the box-seat at 15-0 up, barely a quarter of the way through the match. Yet, after shaking off their initial stage fright, Fiji belatedly emerged from their slumbers to hit back.
First, Matawalu burst down the right from a scrum near halfway, veered outside Jonny May and scorched down the touchline. He was hauled down by May and Brown but slid on the wet turf, stretched and appeared to touch down. Yet, as Volavola was lining up the conversion, replays showed the ball had been dropped on to the line and the ‘try’ was ruled out.
The English reprieve was short-lived. Fiji finally justified the hype about their scrum by shoving the home pack off their own ball, in front of their own line. Volavola sent a high cross-kick to the left corner and Nadolo claimed the ball above Watson to score as he landed. Volavola’s conversion was a horribly scuffed effort, so after another Ford penalty, Nadolo took over Fiji’s goal-kicking duties and was successful with his first shot, to leave his side 10 points adrift at the break – trailing 18-8.
Fiji’s growing belief was evident at the start of the second half as they continued to play instinctively with audacious off-loads and delicate chips behind the home defence. In contrast, England appeared to be tightening up and being consumed by increasing doubt. Passes were thrown forward, overlaps were wasted. They allowed themselves to be dragged into a disjointed, broken-field tussle without any structure.
In the 48th minute, it was the visitors who had the next scoring chance, but Nadolo’s long-range penalty flew wide of the posts. Their play was often loose and sloppy, but it was daring and incisive. They were thriving as the game lost shape.
England’s next opportunity to re-assert themselves came when Ford sent a penalty deep into enemy territory on the left. The lineout was tidy and the drive by the home forwards was strong to start with, but when the ball was switched right the move broke down. Worse was to follow as replays showed that Tom Wood had grabbed Leone Nakarawa around the neck and thrown him to the ground, so Fiji were able to clear the danger.
At this stage, Lancaster decided it was high time to start unleashing the cavalry from the bench. The Vunipola brothers were among those sent into the fray and Billy was soon in the thick of the action, hurling himself into contact. His direct approach helped the hosts re-establish forward momentum, which was desperately needed.
After Nadolo had missed another shot at goal, he made amends with a barnstorming run through four tackles and Volavola landed the resulting penalty to put Fiji within a score of their rivals. But another England replacement, the ice-cool Owen Farrell, hit back in kind at the other end and eight minutes from time, May released Brown on the left for the try that settled English nerves. – [Daily Mail]