Will Greenwood

Be dour, bor­ing and don’t be­lieve the hype

The Daily Telegraph - Rugby World Cup - - Front Page - WILL GREENWOOD

Eng­land will need to be party-poop­ers tonight. At the peak of their emo­tions, af­ter four years of build­ing, they are fi­nally at the kick-off and the play­ers and staff will need to ig­nore what is go­ing on around them.

I have no doubt that Twick­en­ham will pro­vide an open­ing night that will be the best in the history of the com­pe­ti­tion. The voices of the crowd will roar and the ten­sion will have built to al­most manic lev­els. Tick tock. The sec­onds to kick off will count down like heart­beats across the na­tion. Rugby will be pump­ing through our veins.

Stu­art Lan­caster has spo­ken of how the team need to em­brace this unique op­por­tu­nity, re­alise that they have a once in a life­time op­por­tu­nity and al­low it to give them strength and power. They play for a na­tion, in their home sta­dium, in front of their fam­ily, friends and fans, on the big­gest stage of them all. It does not get big­ger than this, and they know it.

The team’s emo­tional en­gage­ment will be one of their most pow­er­ful weapons. When you hear the crowd cheer, when you make eye con­tact with sup­port­ers as you walk to the sta­dium, when a coun­try gets be­hind you, as a player, you grow an inch in height and feel su­per­hu­man. But this emo­tional energy also has the power to cause dam­age to a team and play­ers.

No Eng­land side will have felt a pres­sure like this be­fore. The last time the World Cup came to these shores, it was so much smaller. It has now built into the third-big­gest sport­ing event in the world be­hind the football World Cup and the Olympics. This is the big time and it is a roller coaster of raw feel­ing that can turn even the best of sides into a mess. Han­dling the highs and lows will sep­a­rate win­ners from losers.

It is all about how well a team can nav­i­gate the in­ten­sity and quick turn­around of the pool games be­fore the longer, slower roll-out of the knock-out stages. Will the play­ers find time to re­lax and think about some­thing else other than rugby? Can they have fun? Be­cause ev­ery­one gets ner­vous, ev­ery­one wor­ries.

I can still vividly pic­ture Martin John­son push­ing spaghetti bolog­nese around his plate, too ner­vous to eat, ask­ing me: “Shaggy, why do we do this?” His an­swer al­ways came in the chang­ing room and the tun­nel, where the quiet mo­ments make a team. Teams de­cide their fate away from the noise and lights. The look at your team-mates, the know­ing that you are to­gether, for bet­ter or worse, that you back each other 100 per cent and will do what­ever it takes to win, no mat­ter what it costs you phys­i­cally.

Emo­tion­ally there is also a price to pay, and sides will empty the well at this World Cup. If coaches were to do the best for their play­ers, then who­ever wins the tour­na­ment should be told to head home and come back af­ter Christ­mas. There is noth­ing left at the end of a cam­paign that has, for many, rum­bled non-stop for many years.

This is why Eng­land need to con­serve their eu­pho­ria against Fiji, keep their emo­tions in check, and be the dour-faced prag­ma­tists that so many of their crit­ics love to hate.

Af­ter the open­ing cer­e­mony, amid the jam­boree feel of a great fes­ti­val, the crowd will be look­ing for en­ter­tain­ment. Fiji will want noth­ing more than a fast, loose game with smiles ev­ery­where, and the cheers of sup­port­ers ring­ing in their ears.

They love the long loopy passes into space. They are des­per­ate to keep the ball off the deck, flow­ing, out of con­tact. Nikola Matawalu at No 9 is a danc­ing, of­fload­ing, hot­step­ping scrum-half, who can cause any­one prob­lems, in­clud­ing his own team. He has a fear­less de­sire to at­tack, to throw the spec­u­la­tive pass, and make the op­po­si­tion look foolish by skip­ping around them in a chan­nel that is a lit­tle more than two me­tres wide.

In the sec­ond row is Leone Nakarawa, a man who can still off­load with the ball in one hand even with tack­lers all over him try­ing to steal, swat or clamp it. Aka­pusi Qera is a world-class back- row for­ward, who com­bines ball car­ry­ing and heavy hit­ting with ex­cep­tional break­down work.

Their strike run­ners of Ne­mani Nadolo, Vereneki Goneva and Me­tuisela Tale­bula mix pace, size, bal­ance and han­dling abil­ity. Goneva works in the mid­field and wins gain-lines and con­tact; Nadolo pa­trols the left flank and is a huge man who scores won­der tries and then slows his heart rate down to kicks goals beau­ti­fully; Tale­bula is slighter, a glider, a reader of the game, and an ab­so­lute poacher. In full flow these guys are glo­ri­ous.

Matawalu started and fin­ished a try in their warm-up game against Canada. From a poor clear­ance kick by Canada, Matawalu was off, spin­ning away, goose-step­ping to the out­side. Then there were the one-handed off­loads from Goneva and Lovobal­avu, end­ing with Matawalu div­ing over. No Cana­dian hand was placed on a Fi­jian run­ner. It was sen­sa­tional.

So Eng­land can­not get caught up in the spirit of fun that Fiji can bring to the oc­ca­sion. Their night is all about be­ing dour, mis­er­able, and hard-nosed. For all their flair Fiji are in­con­sis­tent and have ar­eas where pres­sure must be ap­plied. They are com­pe­tent in the scrum and line-out, but they do not get the time to­gether, nor do they get enough reg­u­lar match prac­tice against the top tier na­tions, to be able to main­tain their pos­ture at the set-piece when the squeeze comes. De­fen­sively they love a big hit but they lose shape early and are slow to re­or­gan­ise.

They are in­con­sis­tent mainly be­cause they have the abil­ity to be so bril­liant. They try to con­tin­u­ally recre­ate mo­ments that the rest of us know can only be fleet­ing be­cause of their beauty. For Eng­land tonight, ugly will be more than enough. They will have to keep their or­gan­i­sa­tion, smash break­downs and re­move the plat­form that would let Fiji get into any sem­blance of rhythm.

In this re­spect, the game has a sim­i­lar feel to Eng­land against France in the Six Na­tions. The tough na­ture of their pool means that Eng­land know that it may be about more than just win­ning. Ul­ti­mately, points dif­fer­ence may be all that sep­a­rates the best in the pool.

Against France, Eng­land threw too many loose passes and there were too many lapses in de­fen­sive con­cen­tra­tion be­cause the fo­cus was on at­tack. As a re­sult, France bagged 35 points. Some­thing sim­i­lar on the open­ing night of the Rugby World Cup and Eng­land could be in trou­ble.

They will need to play at tempo us­ing pace, pre­ci­sion, sim­ple lines, pos­ses­sion and con­trol of field po­si­tion. Fiji do not have a back three who want to kick, so Eng­land need to turn threat into op­por­tu­nity, and kick and press.

The er­ror will come from Fiji if Eng­land kick well and hold the line. They will also need to at­tack with fe­roc­ity at the set-pieces, giv­ing Matawalu scraps to play off and dis­rupt­ing the Fi­jian flow. With the ball, Eng­land do not need to rush, de­spite play­ing with pace and be­ing urged to do the spec­tac­u­lar by the hyped-up crowd. If in doubt, they need to keep hold of the ball and build the score.

When they have done the hard work, when they have been bor­ing, when they have ground the op­po­si­tion down, then – and only then – can they start to think about hav­ing fun. Try to have a good time too early, and Eng­land could find that they have a hang­over that sours their mood for the whole World Cup party.

Date at HQ: Eng­land head coach Stu­art Lan­caster over­sees train­ing at Twick­en­ham yesterday

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