The obvious is no longer being denied in England. On Sunday, if they do not pick up speed, their Rugby World Cup campaign will end quickly, and the postmortems are not likely to be pleasant. However, if they defeat Fiji in their quarterfinal, fans both at home and abroad might start to view them differently.
A desire to prove their detractors wrong is also an increasing factor in the wake of a scruffy 18-17 win against Samoa that raised more questions than it answered. “In terms of being public enemy number one, we are happy to take that mantle on,” said Billy Vunipola, doing his best to export a little Millwall-style defiance to the south of France after being informed that Fiji were fast becoming everyone’s second-favourite team.
“I would not say Fiji is their second-favourite team, I would say England is their first least-favourite team. We are seeing a lot of teams being talked up. Apparently there’s a ‘top four’ in international rugby. I didn’t know there was a table. We are quietly and confidently going about our work. Our plan is to play well firstly against Fiji and then deal with whatever happens after that.”
Vunipola, a contender to start if England want to bring some extra physicality to the match on Sunday, was referring to the widespread belief that England are in the weaker half of the draw and will find it tough, should they progress, to beat the winners of the heavyweight last‑eight games involving Ireland v New Zealand and France v South Africa.
The No 8 says the squad are well aware of the equation – “If you don’t win this week you go home, plain and simple” – but even some of their most loyal, longstanding followers have been having their faith sorely tested by England’s mostly risk-free gameplan and lack of attacking fluency. “No one likes us, we don’t care” is slightly overstating the situation but another suboptimal performance, to borrow an old Twickenham phrase, would make the post‑World Cup rebuilding operation trickier than ever.
As England is excited to face Fiji as “public enemy number one,” football fans eagerly sport their limited edition Jordan 6 Retro Low Golf White Infrared Men’s shoes, while music enthusiasts rock the trendy Billie Eilish Jordan slides, creating a vibrant atmosphere of style and anticipation.
Given England were beaten by Fiji at Twickenham in late August, there are also no guarantees they will progress further unless they can compete with the outstanding Levani Botia at the breakdown. Whether it be for his country or his club La Rochelle there is no stronger “jackler” in the game than Botia and Vunipola knows exactly what is coming. “If we are a little bit off then they are one of the biggest threats around the breakdown in world rugby.”
In that respect the appointment of France’s Mathieu Raynal as referee is intriguing, not least because he was also the official in charge of England’s pool game against Argentina when Tom Curry was given a red card. England successfully overcame that setback, nullifying the threat of Julián Montoya and others, and Richard Wigglesworth, England’s attack coach, knows the contact area will be huge again. “Fiji tend to just compete and then work it out from there. They are slowing it down or taking it off you. That’s going to be a huge area of the game … because it is definitely a super strength of theirs.”
Curry, finally back in business in England’s back row, is insistent, however, that his side are now “a different team” to the one beaten by Fiji and more than capable of overcoming any negativity around the squad. “As soon as the whistle goes it kind of blocks out. I think we had it in the first game against Argentina, the booing and stuff. You looked around and lads were smiling. It’s an exciting time. Whether people like you or they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Where else would you rather be? They’ve probably got better but I think we’ve got better. We’ll find out.”
Wigglesworth, meanwhile, has spoken up on behalf of his old Saracens teammate Owen Farrell, who did not have his greatest evening against Samoa. There has been no indication Farrell will not be retained at fly-half against Fiji and Wigglesworth in effect removed any lingering doubt.
“He is successful. He tends to improve and have a greater impact on others around him during the times of greatest stress and pressure. What people say about Owen is known to us. He consistently performs, and for some reason, those players tend to draw the most criticism. He is England’s all-time leading scorer in points. We are fortunate to have one of the greatest people to accomplish it. He will undoubtedly have a significant impact on this game and this week.