By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
EVEN THE most optimistic of souls in the visitors’ camp would be hard pressed to make a case for a Fijian victory at Twickenham this weekend, one of 30 Tests being played by 23 countries in a hectic three-week period.
England have never failed to beat Fiji by a double-figure margin and the vastness of their resources is illustrated by the back row, where the likes of Tom Wood, Tom Croft, Phil Dowson, James Haskell and Steffon Armitage are among those not required for duty.
Yet the pressure is on England to make a statement, and not just because the match will be the first to attract an 82,000 sell-out crowd at Twickenham against a second-tier nation. England’s world ranking of fourth is on the line this month – France will leapfrog them this weekend if they beat Australia – and Stuart Lancaster’s team have a tricky balance to strike: on the one hand, they will want to develop the fearless and liberating style that briefly reared its head under Martin Johnson two years ago, and which could put the SANZAR superpowers under stress in the weeks ahead; on the other hand, they will want to keep things tight against a country whose love of the open spaces is world-renowned.
England field one of their most inexperienced teams of the pro era, with only six of the starters having won more than ten caps. Only at half-back, where Toby Flood and Danny Care have won 83 caps between them, is there a genuine wealth of proven Test know-how. Flood requires seven points to break the 250-point barrier.
Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Jonathan Joseph would all have started had injury or suspension not intervened and all may be missed. Bar one World Cup warm-up, Ashton has been an ever-present since making his debut in March 2010 and, now rejuvenated at Saracens, his nose for a try would have been a boon for an England side that has scored a lowly 12 tries in eight Tests under Lancaster.
Joseph’s absence means England’s midfield, Manu Samoa and Brad Barritt, looks a shade one-dimensional, and the knock-on effect is the selection of a creative ball-player at full-back in Alex Goode, who is comfortable as a first receiver.
Tom Youngs’s selection at hooker, after a mere nine outings in the position at Leicester, would be a high-risk strategy were England not playing a Fijian team whose preparations – not for the first time – have been hampered. Less than a third of the 30-plus eligible players participating in Europe’s three major leagues are in their tour squad, as stories surface of players being blackmailed into refusing a national call-up in order to be available for their club. Clermont’s Noa Nakaiaci and Racing’s Virimi Vakatawa declined invitations while Fiji have complained to the French federation after Racing’s Jone Qovu withdrew.
Their team for Twickenham contains two news caps in lock Pisa Ratuniyarawa and wing Samu Wara, but there are familiar faces too: Scarlets prop Deacon Manu leads a side with an all-Premiership midfield in Sireli Naqelevuki (Exeter) and Vereniki Goneva (Leicester), while Gloucester’s Akapusi Qera brings his big-hitting form to the back row.
The game is a true clash between the haves and have-nots. Nicky Little, the former Fiji fly-half, tells how a friend of his earned £15,000 for a Six Nations win with England; Fiji’s daily allowance is £17, though it doubles on overseas tours. With sell-outs on the next four Saturdays, England expect to make more than £17m in profit from their QBE international series.
The match has another added curiosity as, two years after nearly kicking Saracens to the English title at the ground, New Zealand Glen Jackson is back for his Test debut as a referee. It seems a very short while ago that I saw him referee, as a novice, at the Sussex Open Sevens at Christ’s Hospital, the school that, coincidently, provided a sporting and academic education for Joe Launchbury – set to make his England debut off the bench this weekend. How time flies.
Prediction: Expect England to be a little disjointed but still pile on the points. They should win by 20.
ENGLAND v FIJI, Saturday 10 November, 2.30pm, Twickenham, Live on Sky Sports 1
ENGLAND: Alex Goode; Charlie Sharples, Manu Samoa, Brad Barritt, Ugo Monye; Toby Flood, Danny Care; Joe Marler, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Tom Palmer, Geoff Parling, Tom Johnson, Chris Robshaw (captain), Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: David Paice, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Mike Brown.
FIJI: Simeli Koniferedi; Samu Wara, Vereniki Goneva, Sireli Naqelevuki, Watisoni Votu; Metuisela Talebula, Nikola Matawalu; Pen Makutu, Viliame Veikoso, Deacon Manu (captain), Leone Nakarawa, Apisolame Ratuniyarawa, Api Naikatini, Malakai Ravulo, Akapusi Qera.
Replacements: Seremaia Naureure, Setafano Samoca, Manasa Saulo, Sekonaia Kalou, Iliesa Ratuva, Kelemedi Bola, Josh Matavesi, Ravai Fatiaki.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)