Four changes for England with unbeaten run still intact

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With the dust hardly getting time to settle on the Twickenham pitch, sights now turn to an altogether different task for England. Their second opponents in the Old Mutual Wealth Series, Fiji, have arrived in mixed form. They won the Pacific Nations Cup, recording wins against their Pacific island rivals Tonga and Samoa, but were beaten at home to Georgia and were battered at the weekend in Belfast by a rampant Barbarians team. England by contrast, go into the game with their confidence at levels not seen in over a decade, but they cannot be complacent. Breaking South Africa’s long unbeaten run against them is proof that past fixtures are irrelevant. The Fijians will be as keen to end their winless run against England, as England were at the weekend against the Springboks. The two sides have faced each other six times, with England winning every single one of them. In fact, Fiji have never finished within a converted try of England. However, Fiji will take some solace from the fact that the last Fijian team to take on a British one – in the Olympic gold medal match in Rio, they emerged victorious. Obviously sevens is much different game than 15s, but the match will reinforce Fiji’s team confidence, knowing that they have the players to cause England a whole heap of problems.

In team news, the big question mark for England will be over Billy Vunipola. The Saracens number 8 has been in superb form throughout England’s unbeaten run, and – if injury rumors are true- would be a painful loss for England, who have used Vunipola’s ball carrying ability as the basis for many of their successful attacks. England’s problems at lock continue to grow, with Dave Attwood now joining long-term absentee Maro Itoje in the physio room with a knee injury. Their absence gives Nathan Hughes the opportunity to make the step up to international level after a brief cameo against South Africa. Centre Elliott Daly will be looking to retain his place, and there may be more game time given to Ben Te’o and to young prop Kyle Sinckler who both made short appearances last weekend. Tom Wood and Marland Yarde have both been dropped – with Yarde in particular having a disappointing game against the Springboks.

Fiji have no new injury concerns, but have been left fuming over the meager pay-check their players will be receiving for this game, with some players receiving only £400 for a game that will net the RFU £10 million. This setback is the latest in a long list of problems for Fijian rugby. Their talent pool is enviable, but their ability to retain the players the country produces has been difficult. World Rugby has finally begun taking steps to address this, with the possibility of a Fijian/pacific island Super Rugby franchise apparently in development (after writing that sentence the Fijian Rugby Union have gone on record saying they had no idea a Fijian Super Rugby franchise was in development).

Fiji’s game plan will be obvious. They have always relied on speed, athleticism and imagination to get past opponents, a tactic that has brought them considerable success in the sevens form of the game. They will look to get the ball moving quickly, and will be hoping for a loose, fragmented game that allows them to exploit space and gaps in England’s defense. England’s versatility has been one of their key attributes under Eddie Jones so England will be looking to play a game that will frustrate the Fijians. A return to a more pragmatic style was hinted at in an interview with Jones at the weekend, remarking that the best way past Fiji was to ‘bore them to death’. Hopefully this will not be taken too literally, but the objective for England will be to play a structured, balanced game. The set piece will be a key area to target – scrums and line-outs have never been a key strength of Fiji, and it is in these areas that England will be looking to mount their attacks, or to force their opponents into conceding penalties. If England can gain control over the game, and have confidence in their coaching staff and in themselves, there is no reason to believe that anything other than a twelfth victory is in store for them. However, should they lose their discipline, and allow the Fijians the time and space to get their runners going, England could be in for a very interesting afternoon.

Photograph: wikimedia.commons

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