With Dylan Hartley out injured, England called upon Leicester’s uncapped hooker Tom Youngs for his international debut. The older brother of England scrum-half Ben, Tom had only converted from centre to hooker three years ago and in winning his first cap has turned rugby orthodoxy on its head. Quite simply, centres are not supposed to become hookers and certainly not go on to represent their country in their adopted position but after nine impressive starts for Leicester, Youngs was given his opportunity. Perhaps the opposition helped, but Youngs was extremely impressive. His line out ability was questioned following a wayward match against Gloucester a few weeks ago but his set-pieces was solid throughout. Despite a slight blip in the first half when Danny Care was sinbinned, his scrummaging was solid and he was also very impressive in the loose. Being a smaller forward at only 5 ft 9ins, he put himself about in the contact and made a few strong runs to keep England’s attacks flowing. Stronger tests will come in the coming weeks but it was a solid start to his international career.
With Chris Ashton suspended, Saturday’s clash represented a shoot-out between Charlie Sharples and Ugo Monye for a place on the wing opposite the Saracens star next week against Australia. Both players would have expected opportunities against a poorly prepared Fijian side and neither disappointed. Sharples scored two tries to Monye’s one, but it was his all-round involvement in the game that would have impressed head coach Stuart Lancaster most. He was constantly hunting for the ball, coming in field and chasing box kicks as England utilised the kicking ability of their half-back partnership. On the other hand, Monye stuck to his wing and while he didn’t do much wrong, will probably feel frustrated that he failed to get on the ball more. Sharples was unlucky not to have a hat-trick as a first-half effort was ruled just out of bounds and he will be confident of retaining his place next weekend.
One area where England seem to have strength in depth is full-back. First-choice Ben Foden was ruled out of the autumn internationals due to injury and Alex Goode stepped up with aplomb. With both Ashton and Foden out, England were deprived of their strike runners and a huge try scoring threat. Instead of selecting Mike Brown, who is very similar to Foden, Lancaster went with the Saracens full-back and was rewarded with a man-of-the-match performance. Goode has betters instincts and a greater ability to read the game than Brown, enabling him to time his runs into the line and cause havoc in the loose. Against a Fijian side that love to run with the ball, there was always going to be space and he exploited it brilliantly and helped the centre partnership of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi in bringing more of the backs into the game. Much like Youngs, Goode will face sterner challenges over the next three weeks but this was an encouraging display and he will hope to be able to build on it and cement his claim for the No15 shirt in next year’s Six Nations campaign.
Although Nick Easter has started this season as the form No8, Lancaster has decided to exile him due to both his age and his perceived bad attitude. While Easter has flattered to deceive somewhat in an England shirt, he would surely have represented a safer pick for this autumn series. With doubts still surrounding the fitness of Ben Morgan, Thomas Waldrom was selected and produced a poor display. For the majority of the game England’s scrum dominated their Fijian counterparts, with props Dan Cole and Joe Marler on form. However, they were let down by a lack of control by Waldrom at the base of the scrum. On a number of occasions the ball popped out or Waldrom set off on a run only to drop it or become isolated. Such mistakes against a mismatched Fijian team are easily brushed over, but against the world elite they will be punished. The likes of Richie McCaw, Kieran Reid and David Pocock would have watched Waldrom and thought he was a weak link that they can exploit. It is unlikely Easter will get called upon but putting Morgan on the bench at the very least would allow England to change things up if Waldrom continues to have problems.
The IRB must take a look at the growing gap between the top-eight sides in the world and the rest. Fiji turned up for this game with barely a week’s preparation and an unsettled squad as late additions such as Gloucester’s Akapusi Qera were required. With news coming this week that some French clubs incentivise Fijian internationals to turn their back on their team to stay available for domestic games, plus the increasing influx of Pacific Islanders in general to the bigger nations, it is no wonder Fiji had little hope on Saturday. They were poor in the set-piece, allowing England’s scrum to completely dominate them and give Youngs an easy debut. However, they did start the game brightly and for the first 15 minutes put England under considerable pressure and were unlucky not to register any points. A glorious try scoring opportunity spurned and poor kicking from the tee meant they came away with nothing. They did however score twice in the latter stages of the game, the first a piece of individual Fijian brilliance from scrum-half Nicola Matawalu and the second a drive over the line by Sekonaia Kalou. Fiji showed in flashes that they can compete but will not regularly trouble the bigger sides unless their player drain is addressed and they are allowed to call up their best players for proper training camps.
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