England blow away the cobwebs
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
November 10, 2012
Alex Goode shone for England against Fiji at Twickenham © PA Photos
It was always going to be a lose-lose situation for England; win by 10 points and it would have been deemed a failure while a 60-point romp was what was expected.
It was a match Fiji were never going to win. Despite their undoubted talent and passion, the nation's rugby set-up is crippled by a lack of financial support and having been together as a team for just a few days - with a squad packed with amateurs alongside their drop of Aviva Premiership personnel - the odds were stacked against them. For England, the coaches prior to the match called on them to deliver ahead of harder tasks in the coming weekends.
It's been a year, a month and two days since England were knocked out of the 2011 World Cup and while Stuart Lancaster has focused on addressing the off-field attitude of the team and has tried to re-establish an identity, culture and pride in the shirt, now was the time to transfer that into points on the pitch.
Since that fateful day in Auckland, England have undergone a huge metamorphosis. There were just five players on show at Twickenham who were in the matchday squad for that quarter-final against France - Toby Flood, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Tom Palmer and Dan Cole although there are a host of other players you would expect to feature but who are sidelined.
This was the first time England had been seen on home soil since May 27 when they played the Barbarians. And despite the change in conditions - the former was played in blistering sunshine while this was a more autumnal Baltic day - the opening 20 or so minutes had a similar feeling to a match against the Baa-Baas. England opened their account after 20 minutes with a Toby Flood penalty but the crowd greeted his decision to go for the sticks with boos and it was clear that they expected a flurry of tries.
In the end they scored seven. But one section of the game that may please Lancaster the most may have been the ten minutes when they played with just 14 men following Danny Care's sin-binning for a 'tip tackle' - a decision that looked very harsh. But in that 10 minutes they rallied, held out the Fijians - who were adopting a more Sevens-style of approach by looking to shift the point of contact rather than challenging at the breakdown - and then struck through Charlie Sharples.
Going into the match, much of the focus was on England's inexperience and no more so than hooker Tom Youngs. It was a team that consisted of 215 caps with the hooker making his debut but while he did not set the world alight with his performance, he did well and did what was expected of him hitting nearly all of his lineouts. Ugo Monye's try along with fellow winger Sharples' double were just rewards for solid performances on the flanks while Tom Johnson - in a match largely void of the breakdown - excelled at blindside.
But the star performer on the day was Alex Goode at fullback. Much was made of the fullback dilemma following Ben Foden's injury ahead of the autumn Tests, but Goode performed admirably in every facet of his role. Solid under the high ball, he also made good yards going forward with ball in hand and he should keep the shirt for next weekend's match.
Other than that, the match gave England the chance to rediscover some match intensity as a group and it allowed the backroom staff to try out some new combinations and also blood Mako Vunipola and Joe Launchbury. It will not stay long in the memory but it was a valuable exercise.
But the true winners out of the match will be the Rugby Football Union. They packed out Twickenham and despite the increased price of programme and the plummeting temperatures, it had a family feel to the whole occasion. In the stands and in the concourses the low points of last year were forgotten. On the field the house of Lancaster with various off-field connections - the Youngs brothers, the father-son Farrell combination and skipper Chris Robshaw's girlfriend Camilla Kerslake singing the national anthem - did what was expected of them as a group.
They now face bigger and better opposition in the coming weeks.
This result won't make the rugby world sit up and take notice of England and while they came away with the victory, next weekend's opponents Australia will not have lost any sleep over this England win. And this is something that Lancaster is fully aware of. "It was a good start, but we need to step it up next week."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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