Four years of waiting and at last the fireworks erupt at Twickenham on Friday night in one of the most anticipated World Cups in the tournament’s history. The Lineout will be previewing/reviewing as many as of the major matchups as possible in the coming weeks, but let’s face it there is a hell of a lot of rugby to get through so we’ll do our best.
First up we look at the tournament opener on Friday night between Pool A opponents England and Fiji.
England vs Fiji
Friday, October 18th
Although there must be a certain degree of anxiety in the English camp about this fixture as an opener, they surely must be looking forward to an encounter that will so ably test their sense of composure under the bright lights. Fiji are famous for their ability to surprise and England will need to have all their wits about them to maintain a consistent and steady performance that will set the tone for the rest of their campaign. Although England should emerge the winners, Fiji will be a superb initial test of how well prepared they are particularly defensively. Fiji on the other hand come to the party full of intent and determined to cause at least one if not more upsets. While I can’t necessarily see it happening on Friday night, you can be sure that at times they will literally scare the living daylights out of England and as a result are really worthy opponents in the tournament’s curtain raiser. Fiji is a team that everyone loves to watch and they will be an excellent test of England’s nerves on the big stage. In short a fabulous opening contest awaits!
England have made it clear that they have a great deal of respect for the threat that Fiji presents and their selections reflect this. Recognizing that Fiji’s most potent threat will come from their powerful and incredibly quick backs, England has picked their frontline troops for this World Cup from positions 9-15. Mike Brown’s try saving tackles and work with the boot will be key to ensuring that Fiji are not allowed too many inroads into England’s 22. Meanwhile, England will count on the match winning form of Johnny May and Anthony Watson on the wings. Johnny May has certainly answered his defensive critics in the warm-up matches over the course of the summer but he will have his work cut out for him in trying to contain Fiji’s Nemani Nadolo. The centre pairing of Brad Barritt and the electric Jonathan Joseph should have the better of their Fijian counterparts providing a useful balance of speed and physicality with the big hitting form of Sam Burgess standing by to come off the bench to lend a hand with his trademark tackling should the Fijians start to run this area of the park.
England’s tried and trusted halfback pairing of George Ford and Ben Youngs should be more than capable of running a well-managed tactical game and ensuring that Fiji’s explosive back line are not given the opportunity to cut loose. England’s forward pack speaks for itself and, particularly in terms of structure and discipline, should easily have the edge over their Fijian counterparts. I was particularly pleased to see Ben Morgan back in the fold at number eight for England over the much vaunted Billy Vunipola. I can’t help feeling that Morgan offers much more to England. His breakdown work for me has always been more dynamic and better disciplined than Vunipola, furthermore he has a much better eye for opposition indiscretion and ill-discipline in these areas and how best to work them to England’s advantage.
Fiji are worthy opponents for such an auspicious occasion and are unlikely to be daunted by the challenge ahead of them. In the shape of Nemani Nadolo they have one of the players most likely to create some magic moments in this World Cup. Despite his size, Nadolo is one of the most explosive runners in the game and has the ability to simply brush defenders aside reminiscent of a certain Jonah Lomu. England will no doubt have watched a few video replays of their efforts against New Zealand in 95 and 99 and the havoc caused by Lomu to remind them of the threat of not containing individuals like Nadolo. Fiji have plenty of threats elsewhere in their back line, and will provide a stern test of England’s defences. I can’t help feeling that despite the considerable talents of Fijian scrum half Nikola Matawalu who has had a stellar season with Glasgow in the PRO 12, England’s halfback pairing simply has too much class and experience to be too troubled with Fiji’s offerings.
In the forwards, Fiji will be competitive make no mistake as these are all big and powerful men, who made a serious impression by claiming this year’s Pacific Nations Cup for Fiji. However, against the combined experience of England it will be hard for Fiji to match up. Furthermore as the game wears on, discipline which has often been an Achilles heel for Fiji in the forward aspect of their game may well start to become an issue, especially as in terms of fitness England’s preparations have probably given them the edge here.
The first half should be a tight affair, especially as England settle into their groove and I imagine the scoreline to be fairly close. However, the second half should see England pull away from a tiring Fiji and the penalty count start to mount against the Pacific Islanders.
All of this is likely to be interspersed with moments of pure magic from both teams. Fiji will score one or two spectacular tries particularly if that man Nadolo is let loose. Johnny May, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson though are likely to reply with interest. There is the possible scenario that Fiji manage to rattle English composure early on as their back line’s speed and power find England’s defences wanting and this catches England off guard causing them to chase the game in the first half. I personally think that this is actually a distinct possibility, especially if opening night nerves get the better of England. However, even if this is the case then I am pretty confident that the second half will be a completely different picture, as England regroup through their forwards and put Fiji under serious pressure giving Ford and Youngs the confidence to impose their authority and starve Fiji of quality ball while at the same time providing England’s back line with plenty of it. George Ford’s increasing tactical composure with the boot, Ben Morgan’s work at the breakdown and Johnny May and Anthony Watson’s speed and sidestepping ability should ultimately allow England to pull away comfortably in the end and give the game to England by 12 points. Fiji will surprise England at times by providing us with some glorious running rugby and make this fixture a truly fitting opening to the greatest show on earth. Good luck to both of these worthy opponents and I think it’s safe to say we all can’t wait!