Tuesday, 22 September 2015

World cup Review - England 35 - 11 Fiji

I'm not going to lie, I'm not much of a fan of opening ceremonies.  They just seem to be expensive and inventive ways of delaying the proper action.  And, as this one started with a some adolescent toff lecturing the crowd on honour and pride in a reconstruction of William Webb Ellis' creation of our beloved game, I thought this one was going to be another flop.  But, as Martin Johnson was introduced to Twickenham, chest puffed out and fist clenched high above his head, the stadium erupted.  The icon of the English game was here to get the rugby's showpiece event underway; and if that didn't get you pumped for the start of the World Cup, I don't know what would.  As England, led by Chris Robshaw and wearing their red change strip, and Fiji emerged to a chorus of fireworks and lasers, you could be in no doubt that this was, properly, the big time.

The crowd may have been raucous before, but there was a sense of tension as the players finally lined up - and that was immediately apparent from the moment that Fiji kicked off the World Cup.  England let the ball bounce, meaning scrum half Ben Youngs had to tidy the ball up, and when they cleared their lines the talented Ben Volavola spilled a simple kick under no pressure to hand the hosts a scrum.  A scrappy start to say the least - but entirely expected, given the fanfare in the build up.  from the set-piece, the much-criticised England scrum made the first statement by earning a penalty, which was duly slotted from 40 metres out by George Ford, giving the hosts the perfect nerve-settler - or so you would have thought.

A dodgy pass from Ben Youngs handed possession to the Fijians just a couple of minutes later and, when Brad Barritt failed to role away, Volavola had the chance to immediately respond for the underdogs - however, his effort hit the post.  It would prove to be a costly miss as, after Anthony Watson had gained field position by brilliantly taking a cross-kick above Nemani Nadolo, England reverted back to basics with a rolling maul off a lineout.  Steered well by Tom Youngs, who had been busy throughout, the men in red (yep, it feels weird writing that) surged forward irresistibly only to be hauled down just before the line thanks to an illegal intervention from scrum half Nikola Matawalu, who chopped the maul down from the side.  It was enough for Jaco Peyper to award a penalty try and send the new Bath signing to the naughty step for 10 minutes to think about what he had done.  After Ford added a simple 2 points, England found themselves 10 points up - a perfect start on the scoreboard, even if they had struggled to find any rhythm in attack.

Despite the man advantage for the hosts, it was Fiji who attacked next.  The giant Nadolo was finding plenty of joy attacking Ford's channel, where he was inadequately protected by Ben Morgan on more than one occasion, and it took some smart clearing up from Mike Brown to allow the hosts to clear their lines.  They eventually got themselves into an attacking position again after Api Ratuniyarawa was spotted clearing out without the arms by the TMO (although there should have been no intervention in my view, since the offence never warranted a yellow card) and, although they couldn't score off their attacking line-out, as Watson was bundled into touch, they took full advantage of a colossal balls-up by the Fijian set-piece.  Opting to throw over the top, Tom Wood spotted the obvious plan and snaffled the line-out ball 5 metres from the Pacific Islander's line and, from there, some lovely hands from Jonathan Joseph gave Brown the room he needed to scoot in by the corner.  Ford missed the conversion, but England were now cruising at 15 - 0 after 20 minutes, and perhaps a hammering might have been on the cards - but Fiji had other ideas.

With their nerves seemingly settled, the visitors finally got the crowd off their feet and it certainly deserved a try.  Matawalu, back on the field, peeled off a scrum and scorched 60 metres, wriggling between Jonny May and Brown to reach over a score in the corner.  Peyper awarded the try but then noticed, on the big screen, that Matawalu lost the ball behind the line - one TMO review later, and the score was chalked off.  It was a clear knock on but the process here was all wrong - if the referee is certain that a try has been scored, he should award it and we should move on.  If he's not certain, that's when you use the TMO.  I think 90% of rugby fans would rather have referees make a call and stick to it, rather than have this replay-based decision making that officials seem to be leaning towards.

As it turned out, this was all a bit of a moot point.  Once again, that bind between Tom Youngs and Joe Marler was called into question as the Fijians smashed England off the ball at the scrum, allowing Volavola to boot the ball across to the onrushing Nadolo - who, this time, got the better of Watson in the air and claimed the ball for a superb try.  It was a delightfully weighted boot by the fly-half but he unfortunately didn't follow it up with the same quality off the tee, fluffing the conversion horribly.

The rest off the half regressed into a bit of an arm-wrestle, and Ford and Nadolo (with a wonderfully lazy technique) exchanged penalty kicks to leave the score at 18 - 8.  A decent lead for the hosts, but the crowd were becoming frustrated - not just at the lack of fluency from the hosts, but the amount of time they'd been sat around waiting for a TMO to make his mind up.

That frustration built in the second half when Tom Wood was spotted making a high clear-out - a penalty, sure, but if it's not deemed to be worthy of a card, surely it's in the interests of the game to let it go if the referee or assistants didn't see anything untoward.  It was all part of a scrappy third party, generally typified by England building some nice phases, only to be penalised or turned over as Fiji's defence - which had been aggressive and disciplined all game - got on top, with Akapusi Qera in particular proving to be a handful at the breakdown.  The flipside was that, although Stuart Lancaster was getting increasingly agitated, the Fijians themselves weren't looking especially threatening with the ball in hand, with only a scuffed penalty attempt from Nadolo to show for their efforts.  Finally, Volavola had another crack after being handed the kicking duties, and he duly added the three points that the Fijian defensive effort deserved.

Fortunately for the hosts, this seemed to galvanise them - along with the introductions off the bench, in particular the Vunipola brothers, Sam Burgess and Joe Launchbury.  Too often before the ball had been put wide without anyone running straight to make those initial hard yards - with Ben Morgan particularly invisible - but England now had that directness that they were missing.  And it paid big dividends.  Firstly, Owen Farrell (on for Ford) added 3 points from the tee after a scything run from Brown forced a penalty from the Islanders, and then the fullback himself got on the scoresheet for a second time as a tenacious run from May and a great offload from Farrell.  It sealed the win for the hosts, and suddenly a fourth-try bonus point was on the cards.

They left it late.  With Twickenham finally rocking, Brown surged clear to give England a good attacking position and, after May had hurtled his way to within inches of the line, Billy Vunipola wriggled over to scrape the ball against the whitewash, with the score - fittingly - being confirmed via the TMO.

England had 5 points and, despite an unconvincing display, the World Cup 2015 party had properly started.

PS It would be remiss of me not to mention the incredible Japanese victory over South Africa.  The biggest shock in rugby history but, in the context of the game itself, it wasn't a surprise - they were the better team.  I didn't predict that they would beat South Africa (I'm not mad) but I did predict that they'd finish the tournament as everyone's favourite team.  I was right on at least one count...

Player Ratings

1. Joe Marler - 5 - Once again he occasionally struggled at scrum time, losing out as often as he caused problems himself, and that bind with Tom Youngs is becoming a real concern.  Worked hard in defence but not seen with the ball in hand.

2. Tom Youngs - 8 - England's best forward around the park.  One lineout wobble aside, he was much more assured and he was one of the few men to actually carry with aggression.  Defensively magnificent.

3.  Dan Cole - 5 - Another increasing worry for England.  The problems were not on his side of the scrum but he was unable to put forward any significant pressure of his own on a regular basis.  Quiet around the park.

4.  Geoff Parling - 6 - Seemed to be one of the few who had a desire to carry in the first 40 - but that's not really his forte.  Worked well in the set piece but struggled at the breakdown.

5.  Courtney Lawes - 6 - Weighed in with a couple of key tackles but there have to be questions about his physicality in the tight, where England consistently looked out-fought at ruck time.

6.  Tom Wood - 7 - Grew into the game and made some important yards with the ball in hand.  Seems to have worked really hard at his carrying game and was physical throughout.

7.  Chris Robshaw - 6 - Was very quiet in the opening 40 but, like Wood, he came into his own in the second half.  Some important carries and offloads helped his side re-gain control.

8.  Ben Morgan - 3 - I am a big fan of Big Ben but, sorry, this was a really poor display.  England needed him to carry - he didn't.  And on the odd occasion he did, he lost the ball.  Not good enough for a number 8.

9.  Ben Youngs - 5 - Service was shaky to start with but got better.  Didn't have a particularly good platform to work from and we didn't see any sniping.  Decision-making not as sharp as usual, either.

10.  George Ford - 6 - Kicked well off the tee but stood too deep and, uncharacteristically, didn't vary his play a whole lot.  Too often the ball was just slung wide, as opposed to using the big runners to take the ball up and make yards.

11.  Jonny May - 6 - Some nice touches but didn't really find any space.  Superb gallop nearly got him a try right at the end but otherwise he was pretty well shackled.  Caught out for Matawalu's 'non-try', too.

12.  Brad Barritt - 4 - Another to return from injury and to disappoint.  He gave away a couple of silly penalties and offered nothing going forward.  Under pressure now from Slammin' Sam.

13.  Jonathan Joseph - 7 - Some electric feet when he found space towards the end, and he showed lovely hands for Mike Brown's try.  Two touches of class in a display where he was closed down quickly.

14.  Anthony Watson - 6 - Can't blame him for the try as he was having to backpeddle - but he was another, like May, to be frustrated by the lack of space available to him.  Glimpses of magic, however.

15.  Mike Brown - 9 - Grew into the game and just got better and better.  Finished his two tries well and joined the line menacingly throughout, but it was his counter-running that really caught the eye and allowed England to maintain the pressure.

Subs - 8 - Pretty much everyone helped raise the tempo, as you would want your bench to do.  The Vunipola brothers, particularly Billy, added real punch but Launchbury and Burgess were impressive too.  Farrell and Wigglesworth were both intelligent and solid when they entered the fray.

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