Saturday, 10 November 2012

England v Fiji - Preview

Seven months after being handed a four-year contract by the RFU, Stuart Lancaster still awaits his first victory since taking charge of England on a permanent basis.

But it is a run he will expect to end sooner rather than later given that Fiji have lost all four previous encounters with England.

Even though Lancaster has named an inexperienced side, a convincing victory is required on Saturday.

Otherwise confidence could be dented ahead of difficult encounters with the southern hemisphere's big three, against whom a dip in form could easily become a slump.

As interim coach, Lancaster guided England through an encouraging Six Nations campaign but this summer's tour of South Africa proved a reality check, illustrating the gap to be bridged if the 2003 World Cup winners are to regain their crown on home soil in 2015.

The next World Cup may be three years away, but England's displays in the autumn internationals will have a significant impact on their chances.

If England end the year in the top four of the IRB rankings they will be amongst the highest seeded teams at the World Cup, meaning they won't have to face heavyweight opponents such as New Zealand in their pool.

Lancaster's side currently sit fourth, just 0.06 points above France, with Wales also hot on their tails. Failure to beat Fiji, currently rated 14th, would not only dent morale it would see England haemorrhage ranking points.

Like England, the "Flying Fijians" are a side in transition under new coach Inoke Male, who coincidentally won his final cap in the last meeting between the sides, a World Cup quarter-final play-off at Twickenham in 1999.

He took charge in January, inheriting a side which had fallen to an all-time rankings low of 16th following disappointing displays at the last World Cup.

After an opening win against Namibia, they lost their remaining three matches, bowing out with a 66-0 thrashing from Wales - opponents they famously eliminated from the 2007 tournament.

They have steadied the ship under Male, a former Fijian naval officer, and put up far more spirited displays over the summer, losing 35-27 to Scotland before beating Tonga in their last Test.

Male has warned it will take time to turn Fijian fortunes around, and has also complained about the international rugby elite "poaching" players born in the Pacific Islands, claiming several Fijians have turned down call-ups in order to represent other countries.

"England and France have got a lot of players to pick from already and, as a small country, for our players to be poached from us is not acceptable," Male said.

"They are taking our young players like vultures."

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