Ahead of the Southern Superpowers rolling into town, England face Fiji at HQ this Saturday. Unbelievably, these teams haven’t met in a 15-a-side match since 1999. Questions abound. How will this most inexperienced of England teams fare in the daunting atmosphere of Twickenham? Can they loosen the shackles and play free-flowing rugby? How will the Fiji squad deal with the pressure of Twickenham, and what sort of a threat do they pose? Here’s how I see it going.
Reasons to back England
Twickenham hasn’t always been a fortress since the 2003 World Cup; indeed, the Southern Hemisphere teams have enjoyed considerable success here. Nevertheless, England have home advantage and the sell-out crowd (the first time it has sold-out against a tier 2 nation) will be a major factor in their favour. No-one will be seeing this as a warm up match for the big 3; that’s not how Lancaster does things. England will be well prepared, and ready for a tussle.
England are young and ambitious, and they ought to be free to play with the reckless abandon of players who aren’t weighed down with negative experiences. Alex Goode won the battle for the 15 shirt over Mike Brown, and his ability to glide into space that seemingly isn’t there will be a major threat. Danny Care is in the form of his life and will keep the Fijian fringe defenders on their toes, and Manu Tuilagi will relish the opportunity to blast some holes through his fellow South-Sea Islanders. So while there may not be much experience there is certainly plenty to be optimistic and excited about from an English perspective.
Losing is simply not an option for England, as they look to get their campaign off to a convincing start, sending a message to their opposition in subsequent weeks. They are gearing up for an important run of games and have had plenty of time in camp to get themselves together – unlike Fiji, who will be hugely underprepared having only recently come together from all over the world.
Reasons to back Fiji
It will be tough for them, no doubt about it. There is, however, a backbone of quality players in the Fijian side; the question is whether they can work together. Watch out for Niki Goneva, a winger-come-centre who, as any Tigers fan can tell you has been playing exceptionally well this season. He lines up opposite club mate Manu Tuilagi in a bruising midfield clash. Alongside him Exeter giant Sireli Naqelevuki makes his first appearance for the international team in 2 years, to form a centre partnership that is lacking in neither power nor pace.
Another man to move from his club position is the ever reliable Gloucesterman Akapusi Qera, who starts at 8. Also watch out for Western Force flyer Samu Wara who will doubtless cause problems if given space. Scarlets prop Deacon Manu captains the side from the front row and will lead, as ever, by example. So there’s no doubt Fiji have the firepower to cause England issues, but whether they have had the time to come together as a team and thus have a chance to do so, remains to be seen.
Finally, no preview about this game would be complete without mentioning the inexperience of the England team. The starting line-up has just 215 caps, of which the 4 most experienced players (Toby Flood, Danny Care, Tom Palmer, and Dan Cole) have 154 between them. Tom Youngs makes his debut with fierce scrutiny surrounding his lineout throwing, while uncapped pair Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury will hope to get their first taste of international rugby from the bench. Can the Fijians spring a surprise on the English rookies?
Prediction: England by 18
What are your thoughts?