Following a stunning and historic 30-22 win for Fiji over England at Twickenham on Saturday, here’s our five takeaways from the Rugby World Cup warm-up clash.
The top line
Many of the Twickenham faithful who attended both matches over this weekend said that the South African win last night was as good as it gets. Well, let’s make no bones about this, today’s defeat by Fiji, the first time England have lost to a current Tier Two nation in their history, was just about as bad as it gets.
England were beaten up on the gainline, showed little execution or ownership of any game plan they might have had and, other than a marginal advantage at scrum time, lost every single battle on the pitch.
The Fijian commitment in contact was ferocious; whilst many will laud them for their attacking brilliance, this deserved win was one founded on brilliant and physical defence, starting in their magnificent back-row and finished by their muscular three quarters, who pummelled England into submission behind their own gainline.
Nothing epitomised their performance more than their defensive set from 74 to 76 minutes, one that saw Marcus Smith’s presence inspire England’s backline into some form of potency. But the Fijian repelling of that effort, led by their brilliant skipper Waisea Nayacalevu, defined their day and their well deserved victory.
Crumbs of comfort
Yet again Steve Borthwick‘s England failed to impress any of the 50,000 who braved the Twickenham thunderstorms, albeit most of them out of hope and loyalty than any real prospect of seeing an impressive home team performance.
The warm-up Tests have proven a tough road for England on their journey to France and the 2023 Rugby World Cup and on Saturday England hit a lot more potholes than they managed to find freeways.
The first five minutes showed some promise, with Alex Mitchell really getting some pace on the ruck recycle and England showing far more willingness to ruck and clear as a team than they’ve managed so far this summer. The set-piece was solid, the midfield showed power but the lack of cohesion and understanding of each other’s games in attack might make you wonder if the team had met for the first time on Tinder the night before the match.
Smith certainly brought the missing spark and ambition to the match that was missing and you’d probably concede that England’s benched upped the tempo but in the end it simply wasn’t enough to prevent England from suffering arguably their most embarrassing defeat at Twickenham in their history.
🏴🇫🇯 History made at Twickenham as Fiji beat England! #ENGvFIJ
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 26, 2023
Caleb Muntz and his midfield have bolted on an admirable structure to underpin the unquestionable ball skills and power they’ve always had. Gone, in some part, are the off-cuff plays and the freeform sevens influence and, in their place a host of power runners from the back-row and centres are hitting wave after wave of accurate close contact carries.
With a powerful back-row and a team ethic of all players committed to ruck clearance at pace, the result is space and speed of ball for the flying Fijians to express themselves. The key men are Albert Tuisue, a tower of excellence on the blindside flank, and the superb Bill Mata, two players who commit to direct and hammer-like carries into the heart of defences.
With Semi Radradra and Muntz offering a split option in attack, standing either side of the breakdown, Fiji are able not only to create confusion in opposition defences, but their pace and skills with ball in hand tease players into offside transgressions or doglegged holes.
With both Radradra and Nayacalevu creating havoc in midfield, and the Fiji skipper comfortably the best player on the park on Saturday, Fiji can move into the Rugby World Cup knowing that they have the platform, structure and firepower to trouble any side in the tournament.
Borthwick said, when he took on the England job, that the national side weren’t particularly good at anything. Well, nine games on, he has a 33% win percentage and his team has just failed to put away a Tier Two nation at home, so one can only conclude that they’ve gone backwards from their own measurement of their starting points.
Worryingly, they’re not doing anything different when they have the ball; they’re not scoring tries – today’s effort from Jonny May was the first score from an England back in six hours and two minutes of rugby, a concerning statistic. Nothing has moved forward, other than a rock solid scrum and the lack of potency in attack and the absence of vision and control in attack is at an all-time low.
With four pool matches ahead of them, based on simple statistics, they have a less than 50% chance of getting out of their group.
Put simply, this is no longer a case of work-ons – it’s a case of a complete restructure, two weeks away from a World Cup with no matches left to test that restructuring effort. It is a completely unacceptable and untenable position.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) August 26, 2023
The road ahead
Fiji will spring into the 2023 Rugby World Cup knowing that they’ve a pool ahead where qualification for them is a distinct possibility. Out of Australia, Wales, Georgia and Portugal, any of the Tier One and Tier Two teams can take any other out on their day. To their credit you could argue that Fiji have the greatest percentage of world class players of any of those teams in the pool and they’ll travel to France with huge hope and expectation based upon a brilliant build up.
If only the same was true of England. The crisis in their game is now at emergency levels; the game has burned on the watch of Bill Sweeney and the RFU, with clubs falling by the wayside, careful planning ripped up on the behest of popularist opinion and a fall off in results that’s close to becoming a national embarrassment.
The only comfort for Borthwick is the lowness of expectation of their fans and pundits as they travel to France. The issues are obvious, the fixes are clear; it’s now a case of him delivering upon his many promises otherwise he may just become another casualty of the curse of coaching England.