LONDON (Reuters) - Facing the sport’s ninth-best nation would normally be a pivotal Rugby World Cup fixture for a top seed but such is the depth of quality in Pool A that England’s tournament opener against Fiji on Friday is a relative hors d’oeuvre.
With matches against Australia and Wales to come in the toughest group ever assembled England must complete a straightforward victory at Twickenham if they are to have any pretensions of challenging for the trophy.
That does not mean the hosts will take the threat of the powerful islanders lightly, but they will want to put down a marker on the pitch and in the stands where coach Stuart Lancaster is hoping for a wave of noise to make home advantage really count.
After two scratchy warm-up performances against France, Stuart Lancaster’s side looked much more like the real deal in dispatching Ireland.
The performance finally settled the coach’s mind over a number of selection issues and he has named an unchanged side for Friday evening’s game (1900GMT).
The new centre partnership of defensive enforcer Brad Barritt and elusive runner Jonathan Joseph gets its second outing, with mighty rugby league convert Sam Burgess ready to come off the bench for some seismic midfield collisions.
Wingers Anthony Watson and Jonny May have given England an extra attacking edge and with flyhalf George Ford confidently pulling the strings, they are no longer a one-dimensional side.
Of course, the pack remains the cornerstone of England’s game plan, although after set-piece wobbles in recent games Lancaster has turned again to lock Geoff Parling to ensure the lineout delivers.
England are likely to keep things relatively tight, certainly in the early stages, on Friday as the last thing they want is an open game with Fiji running amok in broken field.
“One on one they can beat anyone,” England prop Dan Cole said on Wednesday. “We don’t want to be drawn into sevens. We need to control the territory and possession.”
Scrumhalf Ben Youngs, however, promised that England would look to go wide.
“We are not going to stick it up the jumper,” he said. “We are going to make sure we use the set piece. But we will pull the trigger when we can. We are confident we can play both ways.”
Fiji, who have lost all five previous games against England, are not short of confidence themselves, coming into the game fresh from winning the Pacific Nations Cup in August.
They also boast a Jonah Lomu-style wrecking ball in the shape of 6 foot 5 inch, 20-stone (198cm/127kg) winger Nemani Nadolo.
However, it would be a monumental shock if they were to end up as anything other than brave losers as England turn their attention to tougher tests ahead.
15-Mike Brown, 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Jonathan Joseph,12-Brad Barritt, 11-Jonny May, 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs; 8-Ben Morgan, 7-Chris Robshaw (captain), 6-Tom Wood, 5-Geoff Parling, 4-Courtney Lawes, 3-Dan Cole, 2-Tom Youngs, 1-Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16-Rob Webber, 17-Mako Vunipola, 18-Kieran Brookes, 19-Joe Launchbury, 20-Billy Vunipola, 21-Richard Wigglesworth, 22-Owen Farrell, 23-Sam Burgess.
Fiji: 15-Metuisela Talebula, 14-Waisea Nayacalevu, 13-Vereniki Goneva, 12-Gabiriele Lovobalavu, 11-Nemani Nadolo, 10-Ben Volavola; 9-Nikola Matawalu, 8-Sakiusa Masi Matadigo, 7-Akapusi Qera (captain), 6-Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5-Leone Nakarawa, 4-Apisalome Ratuniyarawa, 3-Manasa Saulo, 2-Sunia Koto, 1-Campese Ma’afu.
Replacements: 16-Tuapati Talemaitoga, 17-Peni Ravai, 18- Isei Colati, 19-Tevita Cavubati, 20-Peceli Yato, 21-Nemia Kenatale, 22-Joshua Matavesi, 23-Aseli Tikoirotuma.
Editing by Ed Osmond