Brown brings the party alive after Fiji fright night
Phew! How a nation’s nerves were shredded, how the anxiety levels rose. England stuttered rather than strode peacock-proud into the 2015 Rugby World Cup, struggling to shake off a spirited Fiji, coming too close for any degree of comfort to losing the showpiece opener.
It was only in the latter stages that they managed to pull clear, Mike Brown’s second try sealing the deal. They clinched a bonus point through Billy Vunipola with the last play of the game.
That could be the most critical score of the entire pool stage. But it was far from authoritative, far from laying down a strident marker in this toughest of pools. Wales and Australia will sleep easy.
England lacked for nothing in playing to the backdrop, a seething, raucous, welcoming mass of whiteshirted humanity that had flocked to Twickenham from early afternoon. The opening ceremony got them all in the mood, a singalong, some worthy words, a parade of greats and flashing lights hitting all the right notes. The rugby had a good bit to live up to.
Home advantage has long been designated the 16th man for the hosts but England had to make sure that such backing did not overwhelm them. Given the febrile build-up, it was little surprise that England made a mess of receiving the kick-off, players standing and looking at everyone else, Ben Youngs finally taking the initiative.
That blemish was as nothing to the blunder made by Fiji fly-half, Ben Volavola, who spilt George Ford’s simple downfield kick. From the scrum, Fiji collapsed, and George Ford slotted the penalty from 30 metres. Volavola had a chance to make amends moments later, only for his penalty to hit the post and rebound wide.
So much depended on England’s set-piece. It may not be the force it once was, the point of dominance of times past, but it still has the clout and know-how to make life difficult for sides such as Fiji. But again England failed to find that consistency.
Geoff Parling was drafted to sort the line-out through the clarity of his calling, his familiarity with hooker, Tom Youngs, and his ability to read the opposition. It paid immediate dividends when England turned down a shot at the posts in favour of a kick to touch in the 13th minute after flanker Dominiko Waqaniburotu tipped up Jonny May in a maul.
The throw was clean, the drive was crisp, Youngs played the reargunner with the ball tucked under his arm, and as Fiji piled in from the side, referee Jaco Peyper, awarded a penalty try and sent scrum-half Niko Matawalu to the sin-bin in the process. It was 10-0 to England with only 13 minutes gone, the stuff of coaching dreams.
Those warm feelings grew more profound with a second try in the 22nd minute. Fiji overthrew a lineout deep in their 22, England pounced, recycled slickly, Jonathan Joseph flicked on under extreme pressure and Brown was able to gallop to the line.
England were assured and sharp, Fiji were rattled, forced to live off scraps. They almost had their moment, though, when Matawalu, their danger man, bolted from a wheeling scrum and exposed May with a step. As he dived for the line, though, Brown knocked his arm and Matawalu dropped the ball.
Referee Peyper was very shaky with the television match official and was only alerted to the gaffe by the roar of the crowd. With a global audience of millions, it was not the occasion to be faffing about. Peyper had a jittery evening.
England, though, lost concentration in the resultant five-metre scrum, conceding ball, the kick was hoisted wide left and wing Nemani Nadolo rose to take the ball ahead of Anthony Watson. It was a good score.
Momentum is crucial in this unforgiving group. There is no room for slippage, and while bonus points (for four tries) were not at the forefront of English minds, the notion that they needed to chase one in the closing stages if the game was going their way had to be on the agenda.
England, though, could not maintain their early advantage, making errors. They needed good ball, quick ball, for their backs to flourish. It was not the just the Fijians who fancied their chances at having a crack with ball-in-hand.
Watson showed that he can bewitch with shuffling feet against France last month with a brace of tries. He soared, too, to pluck a ball from over the head of his forbidding opposite number Nadolo. Watson was certainly not daunted. Neither was May, whose potency lies in his speed, pure, skimmingsurface pace, almost impossible to defend against. The pair strained at the leash but could not breach the Fijian defence.
Ford kicked another penalty, as did Nadolo, but the England fly-half was not able to give his side the comfort of a 13-point lead at halftime, his final kick of the half landing just short from 45 metres.
England had set great store on the impact of their bench. They felt that Fiji would tire in the last quarter and that this was the time to roll out the heavy hitters, the Vunipola brothers and Joe Launchbury. All three were on the field within 10 minutes of the restart, Owen Farrell and Sam Burgess soon following.
England were aware that they needed to be more together, more controlled, more forceful. They had begun so well in the first half but allowed Fiji back into contention.
England’s discipline was shaky, and they gave away too many penalties. They were disjointed and loose, rushing their play, kicking away possession. Fiji grew in belief only for Nadolo to miss two penalties. Volavola landed one in the 63rd minute to narrow the lead to 18-11.
Farrell calmed things with a penalty in the 67th minute. Brown struck five minutes later after a nice shimmy from Jonathan Joseph before Vunipola’s final flourish.
Game breaker: Mike Brown takes a high ball on his way to scoring against Fiji at Twickenham