GENERALLY, it was far from spectacular as England stuttered their way through the opening game of the Rugby World Cup last night, but they certainly finished in style.
Not until Mike Brown, the full-back who provided most of their few highlights, crawled over for his second try in the 73rd minute did the hosts finally secure victory over a stubborn and at times dangerous Fiji side.
But then, perhaps crucially for later in the infamous Pool A ‘Group of Death’ that sees Wales arrive here in a week and then Australia, Billy Vunipola edged over for a fourth try and bonus point in the last play of the match at Twickenham.
It was fitting for Vunipola, the hulking No 8 who, along with former Bradford Bulls star Sam Burgess, made a great impact off the bench in the second half just when England needed it most.
After four years of planning, England head coach Stuart Lancaster was eventually grateful they did not come unstuck against opponents ranked ninth in the world and who might yet cause Wales and the Wallabies problems of their own.
In livewire scrum-half Nikola Matawalu, and the imposing winger Nemani Nadolo, they had incisive players rivalling Brown – the Harlequins full-back so dogged by concussion issues this year – as man of the match.
However, the hosts pulled clear in those dramatic final moments, Brown almost claiming his hat-trick after centre Burgess slipped him through midfield, before Vunipola eventually finished off.
England – who struggled at the set-piece for large periods – started positively enough. Fiji No 10 Ben Volavola showed some early nerves by dropping a simple George Ford kick, his opposite number putting the hosts 3-0 up inside as many minutes when their opponents cracked at the scrum.
Although Volavola shaved a post with his own penalty attempt soon after, his side were down to 14 men after conceding a penalty try in the 13th minute.
Dominiko Waqaniburotu had been fortunate not to be carded himself following an ugly ‘spear’ tackle on Jonny May, the England winger who proved his usual effervescent self.
However, Fiji could not handle the hosts’ driving maul from 20m out so Matawalu did drag it down to see referee Jaco Peyper award the penalty try as the 100th touchdown of Lancaster’s reign, with the scrum-half sin-binned.
Ford improved and England scored their second try while Fiji were light on numbers, a terrific finish from Brown after Tom Wood pinched a line-out and the three-quarters, with Jonathan Joseph brilliantly tapping on the final pass, combined to send their full-back over in the 20th minute.
Ford could not add the extras and, instead, it was Fiji who responded next, Matawalu immediately atoning for his costly foul upon his return.
He looked to have scored one of the World Cup’s great tries having daringly darted down the blindside from a scrum 4om out, outstripping May and stretching out of the winger’s desperate tackle.
Peyper awarded it only for the Twickenham crowd to audibly announce to the referee all was not as it seems as big-screen replays showed he dropped it at the final moment under pressure from Brown’s flailing hand.
It mattered not. Fierce Fiji stunned England by pushing them off the five-metre scrum and Volavola’s perfectly accurate crossfield kick was plucked from the air by the rising Nemani Nadolo for 15-5 on the half-hour.
Ford settled things with another penalty only for Fiji – with Nadolo taking over from the wayward Volavola – replying in kind.
Indeed, it was his side who finished the half stronger, ignoring another kickable penalty when Matawalu took a quick tap that, although admittedly coming to nothing, showed their obvious confidence.
They dabbed grubber kicks in behind the England back three and caused them some issues.
Ford missed a difficult penalty with the last kick of the half as did Nadolo early in the second period when Lancaster’s side still struggled for any real cohesion.
Wood gave away a cheap penalty when in possession and they needed replacement lock Joe Launchbury to move swiftly and drag the menacing Nadolo into touch as the Fijians showed their willingness to run from deep.
Nadolo missed another penalty in the 62nd minute so, after Burgess was exposed defensively by the marauding winger not long after coming on, Volavola was restored as kicker soon after to narrow the deficit to 18-11. But Owen Farrell, on for Ford, hit home his own penalty in the 67th minute to ease home nerves a little.
The relief was palpable when England finally clicked and found their offloading down the left for Farrell to pop Brown over for his second try of the night.
From the restart, Brown showed his evasive running skills to splinter a tiring Fiji defence but, frustratingly, there was no finish as his colleagues erred at the breakdown. However, they did get there in the end, with Farrell improving both late tries.
England: Brown; Watson, Joseph, Barritt (Burgess 62), May; Ford (Farrell 62), B Youngs (Wigglesworth 52); Marler (M Vunipola 52), T Youngs (Webber 74), Cole (Brookes 67), Parling (Launchbury 52), Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan (B Vunipola 52). Replacements: Webber, Brookes, Farrell, Burgess.
Fiji: Talebulamaijaina; Nayacalevu, Goneva, Lovobalavu, Nadolo; Volavola, Matawalu; Ma’afu, Koto, Saulo (Colati 76), Ratuniyarawa (Cavubati 40), Nakarawa, Waqaniburotu, Qera, Matadigo. Replacements: Tuapati, Ravai, Colati, Cavubati, Yato, Kenatale Ranuku, Matavesi, Tikoirotuma.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).