England defeat Fiji 35-11 in Rugby World Cup opener
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After the fireworks and razzle-dazzle of a fun opening ceremony, the Rugby World Cup's first match was a bit of a letdown as England accounted for Fiji by a flattering 35-11 at Twickenham on Friday.
England scored four tries to one but didn't make the result certain until replacement flyhalf Owen Farrell, on for George Ford, kicked his first shot at goal to make it 21-11 with 12 minutes to go. Fiji had just kicked a penalty to close within seven, and Farrell's riposte restored a 10-point gap that Fiji never looked like bridging.
In fact, Farrell's penalty, amid the onset of substitutes with fresh legs, brought England to life, as they found holes in the defense that weren't around in the first 70 minutes. Fullback Mike Brown scored his second try, and in injury time, replacement back-rower Billy Vunipola needed video replays to confirm he scored a bonus-point fourth try.
But England couldn't live up to the anticipation of playing the opener of its home tournament, and the buzz of more than 80,000 spectators. The Fijians could take some credit for that, playing a tough, spoiling defense.
The visitors, who have never beaten England, undermined their chance by conceding a penalty try and losing major playmaker Nikola Matawalu to the sin-bin, during which Fiji gifted England another five-pointer.
Fiji also found England's defense up in their faces, nullifying their big backs, and kicked away more ball than they are used to. Their only try came from a kick, crossfield by flyhalf Ben Volavola to lethal winger Nemani Nadolo.
Too bad Volavola and Nadolo didn't line up the goalposts as accurately, as between them they left 11 points unconverted off the tee, points that would have applied far more of a scare on England if successful.
In the end, the bonus-point try lived up to its name for England, which will need it with more cut-throat contests to come against Wales and Australia over the next two weekends in a pool from which one of the world's heavyweights will not advance.
"We need to be better than that against Wales next week," England coach Stuart Lancaster said. "Credit to Fiji. It was a bit of a nervy performance first half, but we made some changes in the second half and I thought the bench made a big difference."
This England is still developing, still grinding, and it will be better for getting through what was always going to be an emotional opener with a win. It's not going to crush anyone, but it's going to take a lot of sweat to beat.
Nerves were evident from the kickoff, which England let bounce. That wasn't as bad as Volavola dropping a speculative kick in the middle of the field. At the resulting scrum, England screwed it, and got a penalty which Ford nailed.
Volavola hit the upright with his first shot, and five minutes later, Fiji flanker Dominiko Waqaniburotu was penalized for tackling winger Jonny May inelegantly. England set up a lineout on the Fiji 22, and drove it to the line. Before someone could claim the try, referee Jaco Peyper made it a penalty try, and yellow-carded scrumhalf Matawalu for trying to stop England illegally from behind.
Ford converted for 10-0.
Without Matawalu, Fiji lost its focus, and was made to pay.
Another penalty was conceded by lock Api Ratuniyarawa at a ruck. England kicked into Fiji's 22, and used the territory to pressure. Fiji cracked, overthrowing the defensive lineout. England flanker Tom Wood snaffled the ball, and a skilful tap-on pass by center Jonathan Joseph put Brown in space, and he was too close to the line to be stopped.
Ford couldn't convert and Fiji needed inspiration.
Matawalu, back on the field, provided it. He scored what looked like one of the great solo World Cup tries, but it was scrubbed after Peyper saw replays while Fiji was lining up the conversion. Matawalu dropped the ball but Fiji was fired up.
They ruined England's defensive scrum, reset it, and Volavola's crosskick to the in-goal found Nadolo leaping high over Anthony Watson to catch and score, in a try reminiscent of his club feats in Japan and New Zealand. It was his 16th try in 20 tests.
A penalty each made it 18-8 into the break, after which Nadolo missed two penalty kicks and gave the goalkicking duty back to Volavola.
Handling errors on both sides continued to ruin the spectacle, until England cleared its bench, and the new faces aligned with Brown to give England a bonus finale.