England’s long-held quest to lift the Rugby World Cup on home soil will begin in earnest on Friday when Stuart Lancaster’s side take on Fiji at London’s Twickenham Stadium. With two-time champions Australia and dangerous neighbors Wales also awaiting in Pool A and only two going onto the quarterfinals, there will be little chance for the hosts to ease into the tournament.
The pressure is only increased by the fact that, for England, it has been a moment that has been four years in the making. At the last World Cup in 2011, English rugby was in the doldrums. Eight years on from Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to beat Australia and reach the pinnacle of the rugby world for the first time, England were dumped out of the quarterfinal by France after a month of ill-discipline on and off the pitch.
Then-coach Martin Johnson, captain of the team that won the trophy in 2003, resigned, and Lancaster was brought in, initially on an interim basis. While he did well enough to earn the job permanently, doubts remain about whether an undoubtedly talented group can fulfill its potential in time to deliver the goods over the course of the next six weeks. That pieces of the team are coming together late can be seen in the fact that the center partnership to take on Fiji in the opening game, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph, only played in tandem for the first time in England’s final warm-up game against Ireland.
Lancaster, though, is keen to focus on the positives in his side and make sure that his squad does the same.
“We have an experienced team who are good enough and old enough to go well in this tournament, no doubt,” he said, according to The Guardian. “I was trying to build their belief that they can go on and win the tournament. Not in an arrogant way, in a positive way. Why would we do all the work and get here and then think: ‘Can we, can’t we?’ We’ve just got to believe we can.”
As well as his center pairing, Lancaster has named an unchanged lineup from the one that beat Ireland two weeks ago. It means one of the most talked about members of the squad, Sam Burgess, who only a year ago switched codes from Rugby League to Union, has been selected on the bench with a view to being an impact substitute.
The team will start as strong favorites to begin their World Cup with a win, but in Fiji they have been presented with a potentially tricky banana skin. Ranked ninth in the world, Fiji should come into the tournament in high spirits after beating Samoa to triumph at the Pacific Nations Cup last month. And they have experience in causing an upset on rugby’s biggest stage, having beaten Wales en route to the quarterfinals in 2007. New Zealand-born coach John McKee believes that the unity of a team from a country where rugby is the national sport could help give England a real scare.
“It would be pretty euphoric back in Fiji if we did manage to get a win on Friday,” McKee said. “It's not so much that people in Fiji have more pride in their national team, more that everyone talks about the team and I think it also comes a little more naturally for the Pacific Island players.
“It's interesting, it's the societal traditions they have, whereas western society has become very individualistic. Fijian society is very much based on where they come from and the family values. In terms of team building, it's very easy to build that unity.”
Prediction: Fiji have the unpredictable capabilities to make life uncomfortable for the hosts in the early going at Twickenham. But Fiji have never beaten England in eight attempts and it would be a massive surprise were this any different. Expect Lancaster’s men to get a few tries and pull away late on.
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Universal Sports Network
Live stream: UniversalSports.com