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
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