First hurdle cleared, now they must work on the big obstacles
Bonus-point win against Fiji was the ideal start, but England’s performance has given the coaches plenty to think about before facing Wales
England will be delighted with the outcome of the Fiji match. Not with the performance, necessarily, but certainly with the result; with the fact that they put a tricky team away and got the bonus point in the end.
The stuttering nature of their play will also ensure that no complacency creeps in, which is no bad thing. It is something to build on. England will certainly have to raise their game considerably to beat Wales next Saturday; the scrum, the line-out, the tempo and urgency of their attack, and most of all their accuracy at the breakdown needs addressing.
But Stuart Lancaster will be delighted to have come away from the match with a win and a bonus point. And with the impact made by his bench. You need a strong 23-man match-day squad to win a World Cup and England just showed that they have one.
TMO needs watching
The use of the Television Match Official was clearly a major talking point of a game that finished almost two hours after it started. It was obvious that the TMO had been instructed to take a look at anything serious during the game, to take a more active role, and the regular breaks in play frustrated fans, with the first half taking more than 50 minutes to complete.
I think it is too early to draw any concrete conclusions. We need to wait until the end of the first week to see how other games pan out. But it is fair to say that World Rugby needs to think very carefully about how the TMO operates, because the role of the referee, and the respect he is afforded, is absolutely vital to the success of rugby union. And I think the TMO risks undermining him.
It is very important that the referee remains the sole arbiter in rugby. If he has made a decision, or chosen not to make one, I do not want to see the TMO overrule him. Leave it, even if it is wrong.
The encouraging thing for me was that the one yellow card Jaco Peyper brought out – to Fiji’s scrum-half Nikola Matawalu in the incident that yielded England a penalty try in the first half – was not a TMO decision. Peyper backed his own judgment and was not drawn into handing out yellows on the basis of the TMO.
There were numerous moments when I thought he might reach for the card, but he showed common sense in a highly charged opening match.
Regarding the tackle on Jonny May in the first half, I thought the England winger actually dipped early going into contact. Tom Wood’s arm around the throat in the second half was a close call but again the right one.
Fiji are a threat
Both England and Fiji were nervous in the first 15-20 minutes. There were a lot of errors from both teams and not much continuity. But Fiji then upped their game; they were the more direct team in the first half and their scrum was a revelation.
I thought Matawalu’s disallowed try was superbly executed. Fiji’s score from the cross-field kick was also perfectly done and I suspect it is something we are likely to see a lot of during this World Cup, particularly from teams with big wingers such as Nemani Nadolo.
England’s broken breakdown
If England play in front of the Wales defence as they did in the first half, then Wales will make them pay. Fiji’s work at the breakdown was good but Wales have an absolutely world-class back row. Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, will get them playing with very fast line speed. England must play on the front foot, with more urgency and tempo than they showed against Fiji. Remember, it was the power running of England’s forwards that put Wales on the back foot during their win in Cardiff in the Six Nations.
Farrell should start
Ben Youngs and George Ford did not accelerate the game. There was no real tempo until the last 10-15 minutes when the replacements came on.
Youngs was back to taking little half steps. Ford could not get his backs or his forwards attacking with any real urgency. The result was that England attacked across the pitch in front of Fiji’s defence. They obviously talked about this at half-time because England’s first attack in the second half saw some phase play attacks off nine and 10 but either there was not enough of it, or the moves broke down because of errors.
I would start Owen Farrell against Wales. I would have started him against Fiji, too, to be honest. Ford is a brilliant fly-half but he is better against tiring defences. Farrell’s game management is stronger. In the last 15 minutes, after he came on, England suddenly went far more direct. Farrell put his strike runners straight at defenders and they offloaded well, hit the breakdown at speed and the whole thing clicked. Mike Brown got more consistently into the game. Sam Burgess attacked the gain line. And the forwards were able to attack the breakdown at speed. That in turn took away Fiji’s line speed.
Now, how much of that was down to Fiji tiring towards the end of the match, and how much to England’s replacements changing the tempo of the game, is a moot point. Either way it worked. Fiji could not live with England’s tempo and offloading, the constant changing of the point of contact, and that led to two late tries through Brown and Billy Vunipola.
England set benchmark
All the replacements had a positive impact. Kieran Brookes came on for Dan Cole and England produced a really solid first scrum while he was on, which was a huge psychological boost at that point in the game. Joe Launchbury teamed up with Courtney Lawes and their successive tackles on the outside channel prevented what could well have been a Fiji score.
I expected Richard Wigglesworth to come on and play his usual kicking game but he made England more direct as well; he upped the tempo, passing immediately rather than taking one or two little steps, as Youngs had been doing. Farrell, Burgess, Billy Vunipola. All of them made a difference.
Heat on Wales and Australia
England’s bonus-point win has already put the pressure on Wales and Australia, there is no doubt about that. They will have watched and will know they are in for a tough game, especially if they are to score four tries.
This pool could be decided by points difference but Wales must not go out at the Millennium Stadium today with the intention of scoring 100 points against Uruguay. They must do the basics right, build pressure, let their tactical patterns dictate the game and the scoreboard will take care of itself.
Beyond that, it will be interesting to see how Liam Williams and Samson Lee go on their return from injury, and how Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric play together.
The option of pairing them is a big plus for Warren Gatland as it allows Wales to play a slightly different system with two world-class back row players. It is a luxury.
Ford is a brilliant fly-half but he is better against tiring defences. Farrell is a better game manager
Much to prove: George Ford was found wanting against Fiji