HOSTS England got their Rugby World Cup campaign off to a winning start last night with a victory over Fiji which was more arduous than the 35-11 scoreline suggests.
It was only after the clock had gone red and after a series of torturous video replays that the fourth, potentially crucial, bonus-point securing try was awarded after sub Billy Vunipola was adjudged to have just touched down on the line following a desperate last push.
The win had been wrapped up some time before, but in a section as brutal as Pool A any points not taken could come back and bite.
There will be relief in the England camp this morning that the show is up and running but they know they will have to improve after a night in which some quality, including a fine two-try display by full-back Mike Brown, was negated by nerves, slippery conditions and dogged opposition.
After an opening ceremony which was quite well done, although not likely to give Danny Boyle any sleepless nights, the long-awaited tournament finally got under way in drizzly conditions.
In front of a packed and vocal Twickenham the Fijians were looking to blow the house down and prove that they were not merely making up the numbers in the “pool of death” that also contains Wales and Australia.
England’s response to that was to say “not by the hairs on Prince Harry’s chinny chin chin” as they bossed a first half which was rendered frequently scrappy due to the slippery conditions.
Stand-off George Ford kicked over the first points of the tournament with a third-minute penalty following an error-prone start by Fiji and, four minutes later, Ben Volavola missed a chance to level.
England were 10-0 up in the 13th minute when a ferocious driving maul eviscerated the Fijian defence and South African referee Jaco Peyper had no hesitation in awarding the penalty try after it was illegally brought down.
Niko Matawalu, the former Glasgow scrum-half who joined Bath at the end of the season, had been spoken to by the whistler moments before and was sinbinned as Ford knocked over the extra points.
The Fijians were on the back foot but came close to getting through the ten minutes without Matawalu unscathed until a lost lineout near their own line proved costly. As England spun the ball out, centre Jonathan Joseph showed beautifully soft hands to allow the intruding Brown to jink over on the left for the first individual touchdown of the competition.
Ford missed the conversion and any feeling that the Fijians would now roll over was put to bed minutes later when Matawalu, no doubt still fizzing from his time in the bin, showed the kind of genius so familiar to the Glasgow Warriors faithful.
Picking up from the side of the scrum the No 9 made a thrilling 50-metre dash to the right-hand corner and showed great upper-body strength to appear to score an early contender for try of the tournament.
Peyper had awarded the try and the conversion was being lined up when big-screen replays clearly showed that Matawalu had dropped the ball on the line, thanks to brilliant last-ditch defence by Brown and left wing Jonny May.
It prompted the question: when is a ref’s decision final and when is it still open to reversal by video evidence? However, there was no doubt that the eventual decision was the correct one.
Fiji didn’t have to wait too long to get over the disappointment as they turned over the resulting English scrum five and Volavola’s sumptuous cross-field kick was taken in the air by the giant wing Nemani Nadolo for a deserved score.
Volavola’s kicking from hand is clearly better than off the tee as he fluffed the conversion to keep England’s cushion at ten points.
Ford stretched that to 13 with a straight-on penalty before Nadolo took over the kicking duties with aplomb to make it 18-8 at the interval.
Rather than open up in the second half, things became ever more cagey and nerves began to flutter through the Twickenham stands. Nadolo had already just missed a Fiji penalty chance when Volavola resumed the responsibility and stroked over to cut the lead to seven points.
Ford settled nerves when he restored that double-figure buffer but England were starting to creak just when they should have been looking to crank things up. Fiji were starting to turn over ball with increasing regularity and were sensing a chance to claw themselves withing striking distance as the game entered its final ten minutes.
A raft of substitutions by Stuart Lancaster, including rugby league convert Sam Burgess’s union World Cup bow, took its time to take hold but slowly and surely the hosts began to take a stranglehold on the game at the business end.
Stand-off Owen Farrell had also come off the bench and it was his brilliant off-load after a slick move down the left which led to Brown getting over for his second try of the night.
With seven minutes remaining and Fiji now broken, the focus quickly shifted from safeguarding the win to turning four points into five. When Vunipola crashed down in the vicinity of the Fijian line just as the clock ticked past 80 minutes it initially seemed a certain score.
There was then doubt over whether or not Matawalu’s leg had stopped the Englishman short, but for the second time in the evening the video replays were kind to England and the right angle showed that the try had indeed been scored.
Scorers: England: Tries: penalty, Brown (2), Vunipola; Cons: Ford, Farrell (2); Pens: Ford (2), Farrell. Fiji: Try: Nadolo; Pens: Nadolo, Volvola.
England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, B Barritt, J May; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, G Parling, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw, B Morgan. Subs: R Webber, M Vunipola, K Brookes, J Launchbury, B Vunipola, R Wigglesworth, O Farrell, S Burgess.
Fiji: M Talebula; W Nayacalevu, V Goneva, G Lovobalavu, N Nadolo; B Volavola, N Matawalu; C Ma’afu, S Koto, M Saulo, A Ratuniyarawa, L Nakarawa, D Waqaniburotu, A Qera, S Matadigo. Subs: T Talemaitoga, P Ravai, I Colati, T Cavubati, P Yato, N Kenatale, J Matavesi, A Tikoirotuma.