Eng­land pre­pare to pun­ish Fiji ‘all over pitch’

Hosts de­ter­mined to fire early state­ment of in­tent Vic­tory would be eighth in a row at Twick­en­ham

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Sport Rugby World Cup 2015 - Mick Cleary RUGBY COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Eng­land went through their fi­nal paces at Twick­en­ham yesterday lunchtime all too aware that just as the sta­dium has had a tour­na­ment makeover, so too must the team pol­ish their World Cup act if they are to ful­fil their mis­sion state­ment of en­gag­ing the na­tion.

Judg­ment Day awaits against Fiji, the first point of reck­on­ing for Stu­art Lan­caster’s side, a fix­ture that or­di­nar­ily would not pose too many prob­lems but which comes freighted with dan­ger in its high­pro­file con­text. The scru­tiny will be in­tense, the level of in­ter­est global, the pres­sure enor­mous.

Will Eng­land be up­lifted or weighed down, lib­er­ated or shack­led? The an­swers to such ques­tions will pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment of far more note and last­ing sig­nif­i­cance than any­thing un­veiled in the open­ing cer­e­mony that pre­cedes the match.

The Twick­en­ham fin­ery is cos­metic. The Eng­land Fri­day Night show has to be a thing of sub­stance. The coun­try is will­ing to lend its back­ing and Lan­caster’s team have to tickle those taste buds with im­me­di­ate ef­fect if the next few weeks are to siz­zle and charm and, above all, de­liver a sense of won­der across the land.

There is no point pre­tend­ing that land­ing a World Cup is any­thing but a tall or­der. Fit­tingly, the flanker Tom Wood re­vealed at the eve-of­match press con­fer­ence that he was work­ing his way through a book on the Bri­tish Em­pire. Wood and his team-mates will have to em­bark on a sim­i­lar pro­ject of coloni­sa­tion to win hearts and minds.

For that to hap­pen, Eng­land have to quell what is sure to be a spir­ited Fi­jian open­ing gam­bit, a side with a spring in their step and no fear in their souls.

There has been an un­der­stand­able warm­ing to the ro­man­tic at­ti­tude that lies within the Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, the laud­ing of the likes of the scrum-half Niko Matawalu or the wing Ne­mani Nadolo, but Eng­land have no truck with the no­tion that it is only Fiji who can run free, that it is only within the God-given gift of such peo­ple to off­load, to step, to cre­ate, to be vivid and dar­ing. An­thony Wat­son was right to ex­tol the at­tack­ing virtues of his pals in the Eng­land back line, pledg­ing that they would “look to pun­ish [Fiji] from all ar­eas of the pitch”.

Eng­land have the stats with which to sup­port the rhetoric, scor­ing 18 tries in this year’s Six Na­tions, and giv­ing it a good lick in their warm-up matches when Wat­son and his wing col­league Jonny May showed that they could match the best in the world in full flow. True, they were not as clin­i­cal as they might have been, but bet­ter to cre­ate and fluff, than not to cre­ate at all.

There was a sim­i­lar tone to Wood un­der­lin­ing the virtues of the team’s de­fence. The Fi­jians can daz­zle and be­fud­dle but only if they are given scope to ex­press them­selves. Sti- fling those in­stincts at source is what it is all about, the erec­tion of Eng­land’s self-styled ‘white wall de­fence’ (red for the pur­pose of tonight with Eng­land in their change strip af­ter los­ing the toss).

Eng­land must main­tain fo­cus and unity at all costs, not be dis­tracted by the hul­la­baloo that sur­rounds this game, not get so pumped up by the hype that they lose col­lec­tive shape, or be too fret­ful as to the mag­ni­tude of the oc­ca­sion and its con­se­quences that they risk noth­ing and, in so do­ing, lose ev­ery- thing. For Eng­land to lose against Fiji at Twick­en­ham would equate to the great­est shock in the history of Test rugby.

Eng­land have won their five matches against Fiji by a mar­gin of some 40 points. They have won their past seven games at Twick­en­ham. This is not a team of ad hoc pre­ten­sions, head­ing into the tour­na­ment with scratchy form or cob­bled prepa­ra­tions.

Fiji have also had the ben­e­fit of time to­gether, a rel­a­tive lux­ury given the nor­mal state of af­fairs when their play­ers are ef­fec­tively held hostage by their em­ploy­ers round the world. But, even so, Eng­land’s sit­u­a­tion is a cut above that of their op­po­nents. If noth­ing else, then Eng­land’s greater fit­ness will even­tu­ally tell.

Four years ago, New Zealand saw off the chal­lenge of Tonga, 41-10, in the open­ing game in Auck­land, and that is about the mea­sure of it this time around for Eng­land.

It is not just a mat­ter of launch­ing the tour­na­ment in the grand style, Eng­land must also make their own state­ment of in­tent in what is the most un­for­giv­ing of pools. Wales and Aus­tralia fol­low and even if it is not a ques­tion of as­sum­ing that they might have an eye on notch­ing a bonus point (for four tries) against Fiji, they do have to show their forth­com­ing op­po­nents that there are no fault lines, fore or aft.

The Eng­land pack needs to as­sert it­self. What has been a dom­i­nant fea­ture, has lat­terly been a source of mid­dling con­cern. The lock Ge­off Par­ling has been sum­moned to sort the line-out, bring wis­dom as well as com­po­sure to that phase of play. The scrum has creaked and Tom Youngs will be minded to dis­prove the sug­ges­tion that he lacks bal­last by com­par­i­son to the sus­pended Dy­lan Hart­ley.

Re­vert­ing to a for­ward game is Eng­land’s de­fault po­si­tion and if, to pre­vail, they have to scrum and maul the juice out of Fi­jian legs, then that is what they must do.

But some­where within will be an urge to show to the world that English rugby is in good fet­tle and that this vintage is ready to do bat­tle with the best, right to the end. Seiz­ing the mo­ment is on ev­ery­one’s mind.

If Eng­land need to maul the juice out of Fi­jian legs to pre­vail, then that is what they must do

Last-minute touches: Jonathan Joseph trains with Eng­land dur­ing the cap­tain’s run at Twick­en­ham yesterday

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