With one match completed, the Rugby World Cup is finally underway, and boy was it an interesting match.
The hosts England may have won over Fiji 35-11, but trust me, the game was and should have been much closer than the score indicated. With 16 minutes to go, the underdogs cut the lead to 18-11 thanks to a Nemani Nadolo penalty. It was just a half an hour ago that the 6’5″, 278 mammoth of a center won a contested high ball off of Anthony Watson to put Fiji on the scoreboard.
His ball carrying and underrated speed were too much for England to handle throughout the game as he went on to beat seven defenders; almost half of Fiji’s total output (15). His try would be his 16th in 21 international appearances and it makes you wonder what would have happened if the rest of his team can help him lift such a heavy load.
It’s not like Fiji lack in star talent either. Veneriki Goneva was the leading try scorer of the English Premiership two seasons ago and Nikola Matawalu and Leone Nakawara lead Glasgow Warriors to the Pro12 championship last season: the first for Scottish Club Rugby history. Matawalu’s performances in the playoff rounds were so good, that he was in the discussion for best scrum-half in the world.
To me, however, rugby is the biggest team sport in the world. You can’t rely on one person to score tries or kick all the penalties and conversions or make all the tackles. All fifteen players on the field need to help make sure the scrum and lineout function beautifully to keep possession. A handful need to create the passing that leads to the tries and penalties and others need to do the dirty “jackling” to steal the ball and create turnovers. The winning team usually finds a way to execute the vast majority, if not all, of those categories better than their opposition. At the international level, it takes a starting fifteen and a seven-man bench to win matches and it’s that depth that led to England scoring seventeen unanswered points in the final sixteen minutes.
Sam Burgess brought his rugby league skills to the table in attack and Billy Vunipola carried the ball with such force that it led to a simpler but more threatening game plan for England to use. It was perfect considering how many handling errors were created beforehand as a result of the rain coming down at Twickenham.
And that’s where not just Fiji, but anyone outside of the traditional powers will struggle this World Cup. They may pull the occasional upset as Tonga did to France last tournament and Fiji did to Wales in 2007, but it goes to show how advancing to the quarterfinals in a 20-team tournament is so difficult for a developing Rugby power.