The list of famous English sporting defeats has a new entry. Congratulations to the great rugby nation of Fiji for rewriting Pacific Island oval ball history but never before has English rugby taken such a massive reputational dive. To say Steve Borthwick’s team have a few problems to solve before the Rugby World Cup kicks off next month is the understatement of the decade.
Short of winning Olympic Sevens gold for the first time in Rio in 2016 it is difficult to imagine a result that will generate more pride and joy in the streets of Suva and Lautoka and every rugby-mad village in between. Equally, the frustrated gnashing of teeth in Middle England is now deafening. Twenty-five thousand empty seats at Twickenham is no accident and neither was this outcome.
While Fiji are a decent side who grew in confidence and fully merited their victory, England have been a major accident waiting to happen for weeks. They had been hoping their final warm-up game before heading to France would supply a measure of relief but, instead, a 72nd-minute try from the replacement scrum-half, Simione Kuruvoli, condemned the hosts to a fifth defeat in their past six Tests.
It was also England’s sixth loss in nine games under Borthwick and once again they looked anything but serious World Cup contenders. The pressure on the head coach shows little sign of easing and the past month has yielded precious few positives. Already without their suspended captain, Owen Farrell, and No 8, Billy Vunipola, as well as a number of other injury absentees, the omens for the opening World Cup pool game against Argentina in Marseille on 9 September grow ever less promising.
At least there were no red cards but rhythm was once again largely absent. England no longer dominate teams at scrum or lineout and with and without the ball look increasingly average in most respects.
Freddie Steward also had a forgettable day at full-back and the lack of hard-carrying forward ball-carriers was a further obvious factor in England’s defeat.
Their day began to unravel in earnest in the third quarter when Fiji took the lead for the first time through their influential skipper and centre, Waisea Nayacalevu, and then extended their advantage through the left-wing, Vinaya Habosi, and the boot of Caleb Muntz. When a delighted Kuruvoli skipped over to invalidate a late England fightback, it was no less than his side deserved.
It was all in stark contrast to South Africa’s tour de force against the All Blacks the previous day. In terms of compelling world-class quality this was like comparing a pork pie with a charging rhinoceros and for a long while England were grateful to a ninth-minute try from Jonny May, who left a flat-footed Selestino Ravutaumada trailing to score the first try by an England back in just over six hours of play.
It did not help greatly that, at times in the first half, Twickenham was close to becoming an aquarium. It was so damp that even the normally reliable Steward spilt a succession of high balls and Muntz’s first long-range penalty through the sheeting rain was an exceptional effort.
Fiji would have been ahead on the half-hour had the final pass from Ravutaumada to Nayacalevu not floated forwards, saving the blushes of a couple of would-be English tacklers. When Semi Radradra then bumped off Max Malins like a human skittle, it was another indication that the visitors were increasingly upping the ante.
With the rain intensifying again, though, England’s rolling maul gradually became more of a factor. Saracens’ Eroni Mawi was sent to the sin-bin for illegally collapsing an ominous drive close to the line but the depleted Fiji pack just about held out to trail 8-3 at the interval.
Nayacalevu’s score, cutting a nice line off the shoulder of Ravutaumada with his side still down to 14 men, changed the mood again and worse was to follow for England when Habosi surged around the side of an unattended ruck to score Fiji’s second try. A Muntz penalty extended the margin to 20-8 and left England staring down the barrel.
A quicksilver try by Marcus Smith, three minutes after coming on, offered brief relief but the reliable Muntz landed his third successful penalty to put Fiji a score ahead once more.
England hit back with a converted 68th-minute try in the right corner by the replacement Joe Marchant but a fumble in his own 22 by Danny Care put them straight back in trouble.
Soon enough, Kuruvoli was plunging over to create Pacific Island history and leave England to reflect on a third August defeat out of four.
Whether or not a front-on tackle by Joe Marler on Albert Tuisue attracts any action from the citing commissioner, Borthwick is no closer to identifying his best combinations in several areas and even an inspirational player such as Courtney Lawes, who now has a century of England caps, cannot conjure instant miracles on his own.
Better, for now, to salute Fiji’s finest and acknowledge the blatantly obvious: large sections of English rugby has been living in the past stylistically and the rest of the world has surged past them. Rotating coaches and players is ultimately less important than embracing that reality.
Hopefully, this result, warm-up fixture or not, will be a springboard to a more enlightened era that maximises the talent the country does still produce. Change is needed, regardless of how England go at the World Cup.