And so it’s finally here! After much anticipation, the most competitive World Cup in the history of the tournament got underway on Friday night in Twickenham in front of an enthralled audience as England got proceedings started against Fiji. With all the rugby coming at us in the next few weeks as we work our way through the Pool stages, the Lineout won’t be covering each match with a preview/review as per normal, we just don’t have the resources to do that till we get to the more manageable knockout stages of the competition. Therefore for the Pool stages we will be handing out report cards to the teams involved each match day and a score out of 10 on how we feel they performed, as well as highlighting individual players who really stood out. On the basis of this we’ll also look ahead to their next match.
Day 1 only saw one match – the tournament opener of England vs Fiji.
England vs Fiji
Final Score – England 35/Fiji 11
England – 7/10
Yes England got the win, but they seemed to really struggle to assert some authority on the match until the last quarter when their bench came on to make a huge impact. Ultimately they emerged with the bonus point, but the scoreline didn’t really reflect the closeness of the match which really only opened up in England’s favor in the last ten minutes.. Furthermore, in the opening stanzas of the second half one could argue that Fiji had the edge over England. You surely can put a lot down to opening night nerves for both sides, and especially England who in front of an expectant home crowd have so much to prove. Nevertheless at times England looked like they were having to work awfully hard to contain a Fijian side determined to cause an upset and as a result only get a score of 7 for their opening match.
England got the match off to a comfortable start as their forward pack made a solid statement of intent through a devastating rolling maul that had Fijian defenders spinning off it right left and centre. In sheer desperation Fiji had to resort to illegal play to try to stop the English steamroller resulting in England’s first try which was awarded as a penalty try. Ten minutes later fullback Mike Brown, who for me was unquestionably the man of the match, would score England’s next try and at the end of the first quarter you felt England were in charge. It was the next forty minutes where Fiji really started to get under England’s skin and the nerves were there for all to see. Fiji were able to match England in physical intensity and their speedy backs, especially in the form of one man wrecking ball Nemani Nadolo were causing the English defence all kinds of headaches.
Where England will be concerned is that after a stellar twenty minutes where it looked like they had the match sewn up, Fiji managed to claw their way into the match to the point where until a raft of English substitutions came on, the Pacific Islanders looked like they were starting to get the ascendancy. What England can take great heart from though is the impact of their bench. Billy Vunipola who came on for Ben Morgan literally single-handedly changed the fortunes of the match for England. I was disappointed to see Ben Morgan not up to his usual standards but perhaps his return from injury has left him without the stamina and fitness he needs at this level just yet. Vunipola however put in a massive performance for England and really broke up the Fijian defence, ably assisted by Joe Launchbury who I thought really made a difference once he came on.
What did impress me was England’s back line. Mike Brown was everywhere and put in an exceptional night’s work in defence and on attack. His two tries were solid efforts that showed both his strength and ability to break open opposition defences. He was reliable and abrasive in defence and exceptionally courageous and quick on attack. Winger Anthony Watson never really got the better of his opposite number Nemani Nadolo, as evidenced by the aerial contest between the two which resulted in Nemani’s try. I thought Johnny May although not as robust as Brown also put in a good night’s work and showed some real athleticism in his last-ditch tackle on Matawalu ably assisted by Brown which led to the knock on which caused the Fijian’s try to be disallowed.
On that note the subsequent review of the try by the Television Match Official after it had been awarded by referee Jaco Peyper was handled exceptionally poorly. The officiating through the TMO was really badly done and often sapped the game and players of momentum at key points. It is hoped that this will be dramatically improved at the tournament wears on.
Two other English replacements worthy of mention were Sam Burgess, who took over from Brad Barritt at centre who I felt had a poor evening. Burgess immediately lent some much-needed physicality to the midfield and put in some great charging runs and solid tackles. Owen Farrell also displayed some real quality in his stint as George Ford’s replacement in the second half and his vision and willingness to take the ball into contact while still keeping possession was instrumental in setting up Mike Brown’s second try.
In short a good effort from England, but one which lacked the polish and composure, with the exception of the last ten minutes, of what a World Cup winning side should look like. The potential is there without any shadow of a doubt and England are only likely to get better with each outing, especially against a fired up but injury stricken Wales this weekend. England got the job done and kept their World Cup aspirations on track but still don’t quite look the finished product especially in defence, and their scrum did get given a very stern work over by the Fijians. Meanwhile their breakdown work for long periods was poor in relation to the Fijians success rate in this area. Lots of homework to do, but they should continue building nicely.
Fiji – 7/10
Despite the scoreline at the end of the match, I still feel that for long periods of this match England and Fiji were evenly matched and hence me giving them the same score as England. What let them down ultimately was fitness in the last ten minutes and the fact that their bench didn’t quite pack the punch that England’s had. However, once they got over their initial nerves they looked good from the second quarter of the first half till the final ten minutes. Despite the yellow card awarded to scrum half Nikola Matawalu, they managed to keep their discipline relatively intact during repeated English physical onslaughts. Their traditional weakness, the scrum held up exceptionally well against England and the forward battle was an equal contest. Their rush defence really started to pay dividends as the game wore on and was clearly rattling English nerves. Apart from initial jitters, their goal kicking through fly half Ben Volavola was relatively consistent as was his tactical game. Winger Nemani Nadolo’s abilities at goal kicking time were also put to good use.
Overall Fiji looked a strong competitor and like England will only get better as the tournament progresses. They will be a challenge for Australia, though the Wallabies should have a slightly better understanding now of what to expect and how to prepare for it than England did. Nikola Matawalu at scrum half, despite his early yellow card, was impressive all night and had he just maintained better control of the ball in his thirty metre dash off the back of a scrum we might have ended up with a very different game. I thought fly half Ben Volavola had a really solid game for Fiji and his perfectly weighted kick to Nemani Nadolo for Fiji’s only try was one of the best moments of the match. Nemani Nadolo lived up to all the hype surrounding him, and his one bullocking run down the centre of the field in which he brushed off at least five English defenders, brought back memories of a certain Jonah Lomu. In short, Nadolo will be a handful for any of the defences he will face in this tournament and just to make life even more difficult for the opposition he also packs a very handy boot.
Whether or not Fiji can really rattle Australia the way they did England, especially as Australia should now have a pretty good idea of what to expect, remains to be seen. They will be competitive and will be looking to cause an upset but it will be a tough ask against Australia especially with the likes of Scott Fardy, Michael Hooper and David Pocock in the forwards mix for the Wallabies. However, Wales especially given their injury list must be feeling concerned, and I can’t help feeling that Fiji are more than capable of an upset when the two meet on October 4th.