England and Fiji clash for the eighth time when they meet in the World Cup quarter-finals in Marseille on Sunday with Steve Borthwick’s men strong favourites to reach the last-four stage of the tournament.
Here, we examine five talking points heading into the Stade Velodrome showdown.
Moment of truth
Who are the real England? Outside title contenders who have rebuilt during an impressive group stage? Or fading heavyweights ready to be exposed by the first high-quality opposition they face? These questions have pursued them throughout the World Cup and only against a dangerous Fiji side will the answer come. It is England’s defining moment – win and they advance into the semi-finals with their reputations intact, lose and a four-year cycle of disappointment and upheaval meets a gloomy conclusion.
Aside from the prize of a semi-final against France or South Africa, England are motivated by the understanding that for up to a third of the squad this World Cup is their last chance to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy. Jonny May and Courtney Lawes have stated as much, while other long-standing servants to the English game such as Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Manu Tuilagi are approaching the end of their international odysseys. Borthwick will begin rebuilding at the next Six Nations, but the head coach will be hoping his veterans have one big knockout phase left in them.
If England reach the semi-finals they will have done so at the expense of the darlings of the World Cup, ending the fairy tale scenario of a Pacific Islands team appearing in the penultimate stage for the first time. Number eight Billy Vunipola has acknowledged his side are “public enemy number one”, but points out that historical anti-English sentiment means they are well versed in fighting against popular opinion. On the favourites’ side is that the vast numbers of Red Rose fans who have followed their team in France will be out in force again, turning the Stade Velodrome into a home venue.
War on the floor
England’s headline selections have been Marcus Smith ousting Freddie Steward at full-back and Owen Farrell replacing George Ford at fly-half, but the back row is expected to be the key battleground. Fiji are breakdown masters led by Levani Botia, who is exceptional over the ball, and Borthwick has noted their ability to win penalties in this area of the game. While England’s response will be a team effort, Lawes, Tom Curry and Ben Earl have crucial roles to play on the floor knowing the Islanders must not be allowed to gain a foothold there.
Can lightening strike twice?
Fiji are a significant step up in opposition for England, who were drawn in the kindest of the four World Cup groups. Fresh in the minds is their 30-22 victory at Twickenham in August, their first ever win against the Red Rose and a highly impressive performance. They grew progressively worse during the group phase, culminating in a shock defeat by Portugal, but one of the greatest and best prepared teams in Fiji’s history has the capacity to deliver a special moment for a rugby-mad nation of 925,000 people.