Thursday, 17 September 2015

World Cup Preview - England v Fiji

Well, it's here.  

Anyone who's seen me churning out previews, predictions and drinking games over the last 3 weeks will know that I'm a tad excited about this - but I can draw comfort from the fact I'm not alone.  With hyperbole spouted from all corners of the press, advertisements of varying quality and even, possibly, the worst bit of rugby 'banter' of all time (courtesy of Matt Dawson and his 'hakarena') - not to mention a great big opening ceremony - it's quite easy to forget that that there's a rugby match to be played on Friday night.  When England face up to Fiji, wearing their unfamiliar red jerseys, all this peripheral nonsense will fade away; at the end of the day, it's another 80 minutes of chasing a pig-skin around.

But what an important 80 minutes for the two squads running out at Twickenham.  For England, the honour of opening their own World Cup carries with it a huge amount of excitement, adrenaline and risk, particularly when their opponents are a group of talented, muscular Pacific Islanders who are regarded as one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the world, and who will have a burning desire to earn the title of 'ultimate party-poopers', currently held by the Pumas following their win over the French in the opening 2007 game.

Fiji bring a huge amount to the table.  A vast amount of column inches have been reeled off about Nemani Nadolo alone.  The 20 stone, behemoth winger has crushed defences for fun during the Super Rugby season for the Crusaders, but ignore the rest at you're peril - Goneva, Qera, Volavola, Matawalu and Nakawara are all names that a) you shouldn't try to say whilst eating, and b) that Stuart Lancaster's analysts and players will have done a hell of a lot of homework on.  They're the Pacific Nations champions, they have a much-improved set-piece, and their phase play - particularly their runners off 10 - is disciplined and intelligent.  All this, of course, goes very nicely with their phenomenal ability to create space and exploit it through their natural athleticism and outrageous offloading ability - yes, it's fair to say that, now the Pacific Islanders have a set piece and gameplan to compliment their flair, the Fijians are a bona-fide banana skin, the size of which wouldn't be out of place in the aftermath of a King Kong buffet. 

But I'm not buying into all of this to the extent that many journalists seem to - by reading the press over the last couple of days, you wouldn't have thought that England have a hope in hell against their first opponents.  But whilst Fiji are improved and have impressed pre-tournament, they haven't played a side of England's quality and discipline for a long time - and let's not forget that, whilst the hosts were a bit wobbly against the French, they were utterly dominant against a strong Irish side in their last outing and were, once again, the best attacking side in the Six Nations.  This is an English side with threats of their own - and I'm not just referring to the obvious names, such as Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Jonny May, but guys like Ben Youngs and Ben Morgan - players who can make things happen at any time.  

There's no doubt that both sides' blood will be up by the time that kick off comes around - but I think that England will be in a better position to control it.  Fiji will be fired up by their skipper Akapusi Qera - so intent on proving themselves, so determined on laying down a marker, that they will come out of the blocks at 100 miles per hour.  Stuart Lancaster will know this, and England will have to deal with it - and control it.  This doesn't mean that they have to be negative - it doesn't mean they slow the game down or simply stick it up the jumper - but it means that the half backs need to get the ball deep into opposition territory first off and tell the Fijians, "If you want to have a go, run it from there".  And when England do get the ball in the Fijian half, they have the talent themselves to create opportunities and score tries - but patience is key.

Pah, patience.  Who wants to hear that now?  We've waited four long years for this, and now we can get finally get started.  Bring it on.

England Team News

Stuart Lancaster has stuck to the same XV that impressed against Ireland, ignoring some dirty rumours that the 'Test-Match-Animal' mentality of Owen Farrell may be preferred over the attacking touch of George Ford.  Ben Youngs wins his 50th cap and, with Morgan and Parling holding off Billy Vunipola and Joe Launchbury respectively, the only change to the squad comes on the bench where Jamie George has been somewhat harshly replaced by Rob Webber, with the coaching squad citing 'experience' as the main issue.  Considering Webber is hardly a Test veteran himself, I find that odd, but there we go...

Starting Line Up: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.

Subs: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Billy Vunipola, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Sam Burgess.

Key Player

Ben Youngs.  Winning his 50th cap is a great achievement for the Leicester man, but celebrations will have to wait until after the game - as mentioned above, he has a huge job on his hands, especially in the opening 20 minutes.  Against Ireland, Youngs was supreme, dictating the tempo and varying the points of contact around the fringes as well as playing the territory game to perfection - and his ability to control the speed of the game is key.  A lot has been said that England don't want a quick game - that's nonsense, they do, but it has to be on their terms.  There will be times in the game when the hosts are a little rocky or under the cosh, and that's when Youngs' 50 caps of experience needs to come in, calm things down and play the territory game - but when it's on, he knows he has a backline that can cause some serious damage off quick ball.  If he can control the tempo the way he did against the Irish, that's when it'll be time to pop the champagne.


Coach John McKee has named three Britain-based players in his starting team for Friday's opener against England, with Leicester's Vereniki Goneva, Bath's new signing Nikola Matawalu, and Glasgow's Leone Nakarawa all taking the field from the off against the hosts.  Ospreys fly-half Josh Matavesi, London Irish wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma and new Worcester lock Tevita Cavubati are named among the replacements, whilst Ben Volavola is preferred to Josh Matavesi at fly-half.

Starting Line Up:15 Metuisela Talebula, 14 Waisea Nayacalevu, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Gabiriele Lovobalavu, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nikola Matawalu, 8 Sakiusa Masi Matadigo, 7 Akapusi Qera (c), 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Sunia Koto, 1 Campese Ma’afu.

Subs: 16 Tuapati Talemaitoga, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Isei Colati, 19 Tevita Cavubati, 20 Peceli Yato, 21 Nemia Kenatale, 22 Joshua Matavesi, 23 Aseli Tikoirotuma.

Key Player

Leone Nakawara.  Again, everybody's eyes will be on Nadolo - and with good reason, too - but he won't get the opportunity unless this man can put in the kind of displays he's been putting in for Glasgow over the last year.  He doesn't get a whole lot of attention in the second row, but he's a tall, lean unit who has an unnerving ability to wriggle through tackles and offload via his inspector-gadget arms, getting his team on the front foot on a regular basis.  Having done the hard graft in Scotland over the last couple of years, he's also become a physical presence in the loose and set piece - areas England will hope to dominate, so it's essential he steps here.

Key Battle

George Ford v Ben Volavola.  Volavola may not be a household name, but the Aussie-born fly half showed glimpses of what he is capable of in Super Rugby for the Waratahs, before being surprisingly released.  However, he's been snapped up by the Crusaders for next year and, more importantly, he made is breakthrough over the summer for Fiji.  Blessed with mesmeric footwork and a good rugby brain, nurtured through the Aussie youth systems (he played for the Under 20 Wallabies), the talented fly half can make things happen - but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the pressure that the English defence will put him under.  The same goes for Ford, who is sure to be targeted by a very large, and very angry, Fijian backrow - his speed of thought is never in doubt, but his ability to deal with occasion and react to where the space is in an aggressive defence will determine whether this is smooth ride for England, or one of those games where we may be needing new underwear by the end. 


All the years of preparation, all those months of putting in the graft, and it all comes down to this.  As has been widely reported, Fiji have the weapons in the armoury to cause some damage and they will be fired up for this - and, put frankly, if Fiji play at their best and England have a bad day at the office, particularly in the set-piece, a huge shock could be on the cards.  But there's a lot of 'ifs' for that to happen.  The bottom line is that England are prepared for this and they will be ready to deal with - and control - the occasion in the knowledge that, if they play their game in the right areas, they will win.  Expect a cagey first half, but for the hosts to pull away in the second.  England by 16.

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