England 35 Fiji 11
England launched the home World Cup with a laboured 35-11 bonus-point victory over Fiji at Twickenham that exposed numerous areas of concern for head coach Stuart Lancaster.
A strong opening quarter saw the hosts establish a 15-0 lead through a penalty try and touch down from Mike Brown, setting the scene for a comfortable win in a ferociously competitive Pool A that also includes Wales and Australia.
But instead of issuing a statement of intent in their quest for the Webb Ellis Cup, they allowed Fiji to force their way back into contention and lost direction until the arrival of their bench in the final 20 minutes generated fresh momentum.
England, wearing their red change kit, entered the last quarter only 18-11 ahead but their opponents were tiring and late persistence resulted in a second try from man of the match Brown before Billy Vunipola secured the bonus point at the death.
Lancaster will declare objective achieved in securing a vital five-point haul, but the recurring problems of error-count, breakdown, scrum and discipline must be urgently addressed ahead of Saturday’s pivotal showdown with Wales.
Fiji were heroic in defence and rose to the occasion magnificently, with giant wing Nemani Nadolo scoring a popular first-half try, and on this evidence they are capable of causing an upset of their heavyweight rivals in the group.
Twickenham crackled with excitement after a rousing opening ceremony, but the atmosphere suffered from referee Jaco Peyper’s repeated and lengthy consultations with the TMO which robbed the match of any rhythm.
On one occasion Peyper awarded a try to Nikola Matawalu and just as the conversion was about to be taken, the South African spotted on the big screen that the scrum-half had dropped the ball over the line and reversed his decision.
The introduction of 2003 World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson and Prince Harry’s declaration of “game on” forced the loudest roar of the pre-match entertainment, but the 80 minutes that followed lacked the same polish as the opening ceremony.
Tears streamed down the face of Nadolo during Fiji’s anthem and the occasion was clearly affecting both teams as a succession of unforced errors followed the opening whistle, although England were first off the mark when George Ford slotted a penalty after Fiji’s scrum crumbled in front of the posts.
The lead was stretched to 10 points in a damaging period for the Islanders that saw them scatter before a line-out drive and as the Red Rose pack neared the whitewash, they desperately entered from the side.
England crashed over but Peyper chose to award a penalty try and sent scrum-half Matawalu to the sin-bin in the process with Ford converting.
Fiji’s fingers appeared to be hovering over the self-destruct button as they gifted the hosts a second try by opting for a throw to the back of the line-out when only five yards from their line.
The ball was athletically picked off by Tom Wood and rapidly threaded wide, with intelligent play from Jonathan Joseph creating an overlap that was finished by Brown.
Matawalu sought instant redemption for his indiscipline with an electric break from a scrum that saw him side-step Jonny May, and he was only denied a try following last-gasp intervention by Brown and Peyper’s U-turn.
Fiji won the ensuing five-metre scrum against the head, however, and when Volavola spiralled a kick into the left corner Nadolo outjumped Anthony Watson to touch down.
Ford and Nadolo exchanged penalties to give England an 18-8 interval lead, but Fiji occupied the driving seat as the half neared its conclusion.
The third quarter drifted along, producing few highlights, and Twickenham was growing restless, with a penalty conceded at the scrum against the head causing more anxiety.
Nadolo missed two penalties but then barraged his way through a succession of tackles and when England infringed again, Volavola was handed back the kicking duties and responded with three points.
The arrival of the home bench had the desired impact and Fiji had clearly given their all, and after the red shirts pummelled away Brown showed trademark tenacity to power over.
Vunipola followed him over in injury time, with Owen Farrell converting both tries.