Fiji starter whets England appetite
Before the main course of Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks, the autumnal appetiser.
While 18 stones of rampaging Pacific Islander is no-one's idea of a delicate vol-au-vent, England's record-breaking 54-12 win over Fiji at Twickenham served exactly that purpose - pleasing the palate without truly satisfying it, providing a taste of what is to come without ever coming close to matching it.
These sorts of contests can be strange affairs, the result never in doubt and the atmosphere only seldom truly alive. More can go wrong for the host than can really go right, all achievements qualified by the standard of opposition with any shortcomings magnified by the same measure.
"It is the perfect start, a record victory over Fiji, and England will be relatively satisfied with the result. There were lots of positives.
"I thought Charlie Sharples played exceptionally well and Chris Ashton will have to earn his place back now. Alex Goode put his hand up for selection with Ben Foden being out and Tom Youngs hit all his line-outs and added to the strength in depth at hooker. Toby Flood also showed what a quality player he is in terms of his kicking ability.
"But England will be critical of themselves for leaving a lot of points out there. They got into the habit of running across the field and what we will need to see in the next few weeks is England being a bit more direct and drawing in the defence before spreading the ball wide. They will have to take the game to these opponents because defensively they are going to pose a lot more questions."
So it was with this win, seemingly a seven-try stroll from a glance at the scoreboard but with improvements required when the old Tri-Nations superpowers roll into town over the next three weeks.
Fiji were a disappointment, a bruising opening quarter apart, although there are understandable and troubling explanations for that.
They were mangled at the scrum and set-piece, their pack in constant stumbling retreat and their defence weary if unstinting. In such circumstances brutal rugby logic dictates only one result.
Yet England will head back into camp with reasons to be cheerful. In keeping with coach Stuart Lancaster's open-minded ethos, this was a remarkably inexperienced side - not only by the standards of the southern hemisphere big boys but the team's direct ancestors.
The England XV that crumbled so depressingly in their World Cup quarter-final against France just over a year ago boasted a total of 602 caps, with another 198 on the bench.
Saturday's fresh-faced bunch had just 215 between them as they walked out for the anthems. Only six of the starters had won more than 10 caps.
There were mistakes alright, certain tries tossed away to sloppy passes or rushed decisions, a sometime lack of clarity in thought matched on occasion by blunt execution. Yet those starting stats provide another perspective on the performance that followed.
The unheralded back row of Tom Johnson, Chris Robshaw and Thomas Waldron - averaging less than five caps apiece - made hay and merry hell amongst the wreckage of the Fijian rearguard, notching up 38 carries between them.
“Some have looked at the centre pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt and seen beef without too much sauce to go with it. Against a fractured defence there were signs of something tastier”
Charlie Sharples, stepping and wriggling like a winger of old, conjured one try from a cul-de-sac and finished neatly from a more alluring invitation. Only the television match official's intervention denied him his hat-trick.
At full-back - and as stand-in scrum-half in Danny Care's sin-binned absence, and in beautifully balanced attack whenever opportunity offered, Alex Goode was deserving of his man-of-the-match award in only his second international appearance. Tom Youngs, on debut, nailed every one of his line-out throws and made dents in the loose with eight carries and plenty of thump.
Alongside him, Joe Marler's muscle at loose-head and the blooding of another young bruiser in Mako Vunipola exemplified, with first-choice Alex Corbisiero close to full fitness again, one of this squad's emerging attributes: its strength in depth.
Lancaster has made no secret that he is building for the World Cup that England will host in three years' time. As a rugby realist he knows that injury will inevitably rob him of his first-choice starting XV; with options now appearing across the field, he may be able to deal with that certainty with more optimism than his counterparts in the other home nations.
"You want to see things you've worked on in training come through in the match," he said afterwards, "and that cohesion is growing now. It's exactly what we'll need against sides that have played together all summer.
"You could see that the work we've done on our running lines is paying off. If you can keep the point of contact moving, it's harder to defend.
"We're delighted to get the win today. We struggled a little to get a foothold in the game, but the set-piece really pleased us.
"The foundations for our game were built on defence, and we showed good shape and intent in attack. It was a good start, but we recognise the quality of the opposition round the corner."
Lancaster's key pairings also gave him reason for cautious optimism. Danny Care's early yellow card was a little harsh rather than a return to the indiscipline that has held back his England career to date, and his trademark quick delivery and eye for a snipe will keep him in the side for the battles ahead. Outside him, Toby Flood's 18 points and unhurried distribution were exactly what one would expect behind a pack so totally in control.
Some have looked at the centre pairing of Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt and seen beef without too much sauce to go with it. Against a fractured defence there were signs of something tastier - two bulldozer tries for Tuilagi to go with his 95 metres of gain with ball in hand (more than any other man on either side) and sweeter hands from biffer Barritt than his reputation as a defensive wall would suggest.
And Fiji? It was hard not to feel some sympathy for coach Inoke Male, who as a player won his final cap in the last meeting between these two sides back in 1999, and not just because the margin this time around outstripped the 45-24 defeat he suffered back then.
Male has been shorn of many of his best players, his attempts to construct a settled, combative side undermined by northern hemisphere club sides refusing to release their Fijian stars for international duty and the attendant poaching of young islander talent by gimlet-eyed coaches from the richer unions.
Sad-eyed and plaintive in defeat, his playing resources and coaching time minimal compared to that enjoyed by Lancaster, he was left to bemoan the effects of European club rugby on his players' handling skills and appeal unhappily for the big nations to visit his country on tour far more frequently than recent tradition has allowed.
England's autumn Test schedule
10 Nov: won 54-12 v Fiji, Twickenham
17 Nov: v Australia, Twickenham
24 Nov: v South Africa, Twickenham
1 Dec: v New Zealand, Twickenham
England, meanwhile, have now won six of their last seven matches at Twickenham - a run of sorts after the depression of last autumn in New Zealand, even if Lancaster understands only too well the context of this victory.
"We are going to have to go up several gears for next week," he admitted afterwards, but if there is one thing his side did throughout his extended job interview during the Six Nations it was precisely that.
He is also likely to keep faith with his starting XV here for the visit of the Wallabies next Saturday, his admirable predilection for blooding fresh talent moderated by a loyalty to those who have delivered when given the chance.
There will be those who would like to see what Goode can do at centre, possibly with Tuilagi inside him and with Mike Brown back at full-back. Sharples' display means Chris Ashton is not entirely certain to return now his disciplinary ban has expired.
They are pleasant headaches for the head coach to have, even if the next three weeks do indeed provide problems of a less edifying kind.
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