“You only get one chance to make a first impression” may or may not be a quote from the lips of Oscar Wilde before it was appropriated by any number of career advisor’s but it is definitely applicable to England as they look to impress in the Rugby World Cup opener at Twickenham on Friday night.
Fast starts are something that England have excelled at during their warm up games at home having scored 12 points in the first 14 minutes versus Ireland last time out and 12 in the first 18 minutes against France previously. The middle section of those games has been frankly alarming from an English point of view though, against France they failed to score between the 18th and the 45th minute and when they played Ireland they score between the 14th and the 47th minute. If Fiji can weather the early storm they are sure to face, or score some points of their own in the first 20 minutes, which neither France or Ireland could, they could well make a packed Twickenham a very nervy place and any unrest in the crowd may add to the pressure that young George Ford will be right to feel.
Ford’s last competitive game at Twickenham was a 16-28 point defeat at the hands of his rival for England’s 10 shirt Owen Farrell’s Saracens side. In that game Ford recorded a perfect kicking record slotting home 3 penalties and a conversion but his Bath team lacked “big game nous” (according to Sir Ian McGeechan) and couldn’t cope with the intensity that Saracens played with. Now Fiji may not exactly fit the bill when it comes to “big game nous” but they won’t want for intensity. Certainly in recent seasons at Bath Ford has struggled to show his trademark flair when faced with a defence that blitzes from out to in and with Leicester’s Vereniki Goneva lining up at Outside Centre for Fiji don’t be surprised to see a few penalties conceded in the middle of the pitch early on as their line speed is sure to test Jaco Peyper’s offside line. George Ford’s kicking from hand will have to almost perfect too or his England teammates face the prospect of having to stop Fiji’s sizeable back 3 (Nadolo 6ft 4 and weighs well over 19 stone, his wing partner Nayacalevu is 6ft 4 and 16+ stone and fullback Talebulamaijaina is a positively 6ft tall and 15 stone 6 lbs) after they’ve had a decent chance to build up some momentum.
There is more than a chance that the outcome of the game (and that of most of the close matchups at the tournament) will be dependent on the official’s interpretation at scrum time and this may well be a problem for Fiji, not because they will necessarily have an inferior scrimmage, but because perception is often 9 tenths of the law when it comes to referee’s decision making. England’s scrum will be far from full strength with the omission of Dylan Hartley and Alex Corbisiero who you could argue would start for any International side if they were 100% fit (a mischievous person may suggest they leave bigger hole’s in the home team’s first XV than Halfpenny and Webb do in Wales’). A trend that seems to be prevalent amongst officials (naming no names but particulalrly ones whose name starts with “R” and ends with “oman Poite”) recently is an almost willingness to penalise Loose Head props at scrum time and with Fiji’s starting number 1 Campese Ma’afu playing all of his recent rugby with Nottingham (after a rather lacklustre spell with Cardiff Blues) in the second tier of rugby in England Peyper may well decide that he’s a weak spot and any pressure coming through the Fijian front row may well result in Ma’afu being the unlucky man to get penalised (although England Tight Head Dan Cole is no stranger to a good talking to from a referee lately as officials seem to have wised up to his particular quirks). Overall discipline is a problem that has blighted Fiji on occasion although with just 1 loss in their last 7 games (which has seen them move up to 8th in the World Rugby rankings <if you believe in that sort of thing, it should be pointed out that they haven’t played any of the teams above them in the last 7 games>) they may be finding a way to channel their passion into the sort of intensity that may worry England.
I can only really see 2 possible outcomes in this game, either England will maintain their tradition of strong starts at Twickenham and blow Fiji away early doors or Fiji will provide an obstinate opponent in the first 20 minutes and we could be in for a nail biter. Incidentally if the game goes is closer than Stuart Lancaster would like going into the last 25 minutes the players available to him from the bench may not be much help because with the exception of Richard Wigglesworth there’s very little creativity available to him since he appears to have picked players who can defend better than the starting players (Farrell for Ford and Burgess for Joseph). Fiji on the other hand can call on the Ospreys’ Josh Matavesi, the powerful Asaeli Tikoiriotuma and back rower Peceli Yato who wouldn’t look out of place in Fiji’s backline, he can seriously shift for someone who is 6ft 5 tall so they may well score some tries late on in proceedings.