Be dour, boring and don’t believe the hype
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