England’s laboured launch as Fiji put up fight

England 35 Fiji 11: The trains weren’t running, the bars were overflowing, the stewards were next to useless and yet, at around 7pm yesterday evening, something rather strange happened in south-west London.

Loudly, proudly, but without arrogance, rugby announced itself - for six weeks at least - as the world’s premier sport.

It will not be perfect – and the ensuring game between England and Fiji demonstrated that, as did the ridiculous over-use of the TMO – but this World Cup is a wonderful opportunity for the sport.

And what impressed about the occasion, although admittedly not so much the match itself, was that it was done with a confidence and inclusivity that rugby has not always possessed.

Traditionally derided as elitist and out of touch, there were nods to the sport’s past in a World Cup opening ceremony that was as impressive as it was brief.

As 20 legends, one for each side in the competition, stood on raised platforms in the centre of the Twickenham pitch the stadium shook with the noise and reached crescendo when Martin Johnson’s name was read out.

Johnno himself looked a touch emotional, and the fact that this tournament has made that particular lump of granite crack just a little demonstrates that the World Cup really can achieve astonishing things.

That was less obvious in the rugby that followed, but England will be content – and in truth mightily relieved - simply to have won.

The opening 20 minutes was impressive enough but England slipped into headless, unthinking rugby far too easily and were glad to hear the final whistle that came with a more convincing scoreline than they deserved.

Stuart Lancaster will know this was a rather average first step and will not worry the other half-dozen contenders to win the William Webb Ellish trophy.

But the tournament itself could and should be very special. It’s certainly not all about England, either. In a tournament that will see New Zealanders head to Newcastle, Georgians celebrate in Gloucester and Canadians enjoy the delights of Cardiff, it was apt that there were myriad other nationalities around Twickenham last night.

‘Allez les Blues’ reverberated around the corrugated iron roof of Richmond station before the match, while Argentines seemed to take a particular liking to the ‘Traditional Sausage Stall’ that stood just outside the stadium entrance.

But this tournament needs England to do well. Many may sneer at that but an early exit for Lancaster’s side would inflict a potentially fatal slow puncture on the tournament.

Normally a departure before the quarter-finals wouldn’t be a consideration but the devilish nature of the Pool of Death meant it had to be, and Fiji had to be beaten with Wales and Australia to come.

England struggled somewhat after surging to an impressive 15 point lead within the first 20 minutes, although the South African officials were a constant source of as much debate as the rugby with the constant referrals to the TMO.

There were 10 minutes of stoppages within the first half-hour of play, a ludicrous amount considering a global audience of 450 million people will simply walk away if their viewing pleasure amounts to a series of monotonous replays rather than live action.

The call to review a fine score by Nikola Matawalu – a decision which was only taken as the conversion was to be taken when the big screens showed the scrum-half dropping rather than grounding the ball – was correct but there was no need to review a fine try by the sensational Nemani Nadolo minutes later.

Jaco Peyper, the referee, also chose to sin-bin Matawalu while awarding a harsh penalty try for England’s first score – the 100th try in Lancaster’s reign.

That the second came from Mike Brown while Matawalu was still in the bin will not have pleased Fiji coach John McKee, but his side’s response was impressive with Nadolo to the fore.

The wing is an astonishing and terrifying physical specimen and even took on the kicking duties, with mixed success.

His try came when he rose above the helpless Anthony Watson to claim a kick from Ben Volavola, but Fiji were unable to cross the whitewash again despite the usual range of offloads and outrageous steps.

Instead, they ensured England were unable to make the game safe until Brown – probably his side’s best player - claimed his second try with eight minutes remaining after good work from substitute fly-half Owen Farrell.

That eased the pressure on England, who can only help they were playing slightly within themselves.

Certainly, they must do better if they are to trouble Wales and Australia, but it was a case of ‘job done’.

The same, too, can be said for the opening day. After all the build-up, all the calls to arms and the exhortions to reach new heights, we can now say we are one match down and have just the 47 to go.

Ireland could win it; New Zealand probably will.

But it’s here. It’s rugby’s time. Enjoy it.

Scorers for England:

Tries: Penalty, Brown 2, B. Vunipola. Cons: Ford, Farrell 2. Pens: Ford 2, Farrell.

ENGLAND:

Brown, Watson, Joseph, Barritt, May, Ford, B. Youngs, Marler, T. Youngs, Cole, Parling, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan.

Replacements:

Burgess for Barritt (62), Farrell for Ford (62), Wigglesworth for B. Youngs (52), B. Vunipola for Marler (52), Webber for T. Youngs (74), Brookes for Cole (68), Launchbury for Parling (52).

Fiji scorers:

Tries: Nadolo. Pens: Nadolo, Volavola.

FIJI:

Talebula, Nayacalevu, Goneva, Lovobalavu, Nadolo, Volavola, Matawalu, Ma’afu, Koto Vuli, Saulo, Ratuniyarawa, Nakarawa, Waqaniburotu, Qera, Matadigo.

Replacements:

Ravai for Ma’afu (74), Tuapati for Koto Vuli (75), Colati for Saulo (77), Cavubati for Ratuniyarawa (41), Yato for Waqaniburotu (60).

Referee:

Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

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