BACK in 1991, England lost the opening match of the Rugby World Cup at Twickenham before easing through their next two pool games and going all the way to the final.
If Stuart Lancaster’s men slip up in tonight’s long-awaited curtain raiser at English rugby HQ it is difficult to foresee a similar scenario panning out.
There will be a carnival atmosphere tonight as England face Fiji in Pool A to get the extravaganza up and running but, with absolutely no margin for error, it will be as fretful as it is festive.
It was the All Blacks 24 years ago who defeated the hosts 18-12 but then England had the luxury of games against Italy and the United States to follow. This time they’ve got Wales followed by Australia.
Fiji have been slightly forgotten in all the “pool of death” chat, with most observers expecting them to threaten the occasional scare, entertain in their irrepressible way, inflict some physical damage, then dutifully take their rightful fourth place in the devilishly difficult group.
This England side will be taking nothing for granted, however. The traditional arrogance, perceived or otherwise, is gone and, four years on from the dwarf-throwing madness in New Zealand, the hosts have become, whisper it, a rather likeable and admirable bunch under Lancaster, the modest Cumbrian with a Scottish mother who represented Scotland Students, Scotland Under-19s and Scotland Under-21s in his youth.
It is true that England lack experience, especially when compared to the battle-hardened class of 2003, but home advantage will surely provide a huge spur and, if they get off to a good start tonight, they will be hard to stop.
It will be fascinating to see how the George Ford-led backline goes in what is sure to be a contest that opens up for periods this evening. The Jonathan Joseph-Brad Barritt centre pairing is potentially electric, with Sam Burgess waiting in the wings, and, in Gloucester wing Jonny May, they have a lightning finisher.
“There’s a lot of talk about this word ‘upset’, but we’ve prepared well for this game,” said forwards coach Graham Rowntree yesterday.
“For our guys, this is the time of their lives. They are on their own turf, in front of their families and friends, with potentially 15 million people watching on TV, 50 million country-wide supporting them.
“The players are aware of that support, so which team is the pressure on? That’s my question.
“We’ve been ready for a couple of weeks. We’ve trained exceptionally well. It’s been a long three months and it’s been a tough camp.
“We’ve had a good work-out against some great nations in France and Ireland in our warm-up games. The lads are fitter than they’ve ever been. I’m excited for them.”
Fiji have their own embarrassments from the 2011 tournament to atone for as they aim to make the last eight for the first time since 2007 when they famously beat Wales 38-34 in the pool.
Four years ago, an underprepared Fiji were thumped by South Sea rivals Samoa and then humiliated 66-0 by the Welsh. This year they are in much better shape, having won the recent Pacific Nations Cup.
Scottish eyes will be on Leone Nakarawa and his now former Glasgow team-mate Niko Matawalu but the man who could cause England most problems is their giant wing Nemani Nadolo. New Zealand stand-off Dan Carter has spent the past two seasons playing alongside Nadolo at the Crusaders, witnessing first hand the havoc caused by the 20-stone, 6ft 5in giant, who was the top tryscorer in the Super 15 in 2014.
“Nadolo is bit of a freak. He’s a huge man, but is also very skilful. He’s a quality player and one to watch,” Carter said yesterday.
“He’s a proud Fijian and will be a real threat at this World Cup, not just against England, but against all the teams who Fiji face. Nadolo has this funny Australian accent which you wouldn’t really expect from a Fijian. He’s an absolute top bloke, very genuine and down to earth. He’s typical Fijian – a relaxed character who enjoys himself and doesn’t take life too seriously. Fiji could potentially cause an upset because they’re a strong side.”
Fiji’s Kiwi coach John McKee is under no illusions about what a monumental feat it would be if his side could pull off a win.
“It would be pretty euphoric back in Fiji if we did it.
“We see what happens with the sevens when they win,” McKee said.
“The people are so passionate about the game that they dearly want their national team to do well. And they always believe their national team can beat who they’re playing.
“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.”