Golden Brown gives England perfect start
Hosts open with a win - and add crucial bonus try at death
There was a beautiful contrast here between the Messianic grandeur of the World Cup’s wider aim of converting the nation to rugby union and the brutal simplicity of England’s task: beat Fiji, smash down the physical threat, avoid an opening night calamity.
The occasion got to them, all right. No, not England – Fiji, who were every inch the 1,000-1 tournament outsiders in an opening half-hour punctuated by TMO reviews that moved about as fast as the Chilcot Report.
Exposed to the new zeal of Twickenham, and examined by 450 million sets of eyes around the world, Fiji were understandably over-awed before making it to halftime only 18-8 down.
They knocked on, gave away daft penalties and pulled down a maul to concede a penalty try to earn a yellow card for Nikola Matawalu.
Already this World Cup has found a problem that needs sorting it: a pace of video review that Dickens might have recognised from his days observing civil trials. Rugby has embraced look-backs and legal accuracy like no other sport, but it cannot spend whole minutes replaying events that were clear on the first rewind. A player dropping a ball before he has touched it down, for instance (Fiji’s Matawalu). A minor gripe. The lesson will doubtless be heeded when the refereeing authorities hear how much grumbling there was among television viewers.
Rugby is start-stop enough already without these unnecessarily elongated inquests.
The good news is that it will not detract permanently from the promise of a grand opening night, on which England started with a hunger to display their authority. The aim was not to lay on some Friday night runaround, but a cold and ruthless demoliton.
For 1,000 also-rans to face 7-2 shots ought to be pretty clear. But thinking straight must be devilishly hard with the weight of a World Cup on your back and, in some senses, England will feel more comfortable with the familiar challenges of Wales and Australia, rather than dangerous underdogs.
Only when the previews stop and the turnstiles click do you acquire an accurate feel of what a tournament will be. This one announced itself with the same giddiness that characterised the London Olympic Stadium three summers ago. Then, too, the crowd were fizzy with excitement: grateful just to be there, frantic to show how much they wanted to get behind the event.
So for an hour or so before the opening ceremony the punters rocked the stadium with their singing and dancing. The listened obediently to rugby’s message about “inclusivity” and “values.” The Primer Minister’s twitter account went all teenage, spraying out praise for the “atmosphere. Prince Harry provided the obligatory world-pleasing monarchical glamour, but with a new circus barker’s edge. His unofficial role at this World Cup: royal rabble-rouser.
The pre-show show was coherent, to the point and infused with just the right amount of drama.
Somewhere in the bowels of a stadium transformed from Six Nations cauldron to neon, globalised super dome, the
Only when the previews stope and turnstiles click can you acquire an accurate sense
England team were readying themselves for the smash of bone on bone. Pool A, to the bottom of which at least one big name will sink.
Now, they could see what host country status really meant. Or heard it, anyway. The party outside must have shaken their dressing room. The Friday night lights could be seen all across London; all across the world. All that hoopla, all that talk about connecting the team to the country is under the arc lights with every kick and tackle.
The huge cheer accorded to Martin Johnson, the 2003 winning captain, before the kick-off was an affirmation of what really matters. Winning. The old English urge to subjugate on rugby pitches will never go away. So they need a bit of Johnson. But there were flashes here also of the other qualities they are trying to cultivate.
George Ford, a creative No 10, was clearly a target for Fiji in the opening exchanges. Mike Brown, Mr Combative, gave him a pep talk to settle him down. Jonny May, whose tail is up, took the fight to bigger men.
Anthony Watson, another potential star of this World Cup, out-jumped the immense Nemani Nandolo. But before half-time, Nandolo returned the compliment,
beating Watson to a cross-field kick to score Fiji’s first try. The hope is that Watson, Ford, and Jonathan Joseph will entertain nonaficionados and raise England’s player to a higher aesthetic level.
They are the three to present English rugby as an exciting spectacle. Yet no opening game in any World Cup in living memory has been about putting on the Ritz? How could it be, given the fear of losing, the nerves of the players and the bigger trials ahead. Usually it is about winning the attrition and avoiding slip-ups.
On a macro level the point was to get the presentation and the Captain’s run: Chris Robshaw tries to break free from a Fiji tackle spirit right. There are no doubts on that front. It cannot possibly be London 2012 in scale, but it can revive the extraordinary warmth of that fiesta.
England are already a thoroughly committed and professional bunch. We seek only to find out whether they are good enough – specifically, to deal with the best of the southern hemisphere.
However hard it was for the team down there on the pitch, Twickenham felt bigger, brighter, more global, more prime-time. This was a night of promise for a tournament the country seems ready to embrace.
It cannot possibly be London 2012 in scale but it can revive the warmth of that fiesta
Rising to the top: Tom Wood climbs highest to claim the ball