Rugby World Cup
England struggle to cope with status as serious Rugby World Cup contenders, Simon Barnes writes
Simon Barnes
September 18, 2015
Wobbly England sneak bonus point victory

And so it begins: England's quest for the attainable grail. The Rugby World Cup began with England beating Fiji and setting off toward the one World Cup that's within the nation's grasp. The rugby world is a small one and at all eight of the World Cups played, England have gone in as one of the big boys.

It's not what the English people are used to. In the football version, England have grown accustomed to quarterfinals as the realistic limits of ambition. There was an almost fatalistic feeling across the nation at the last one. In cricket, the other major ball-game that the English go in for, England have been too snooty about the one-day version to take it seriously and play it well.

Self-denigration and snobbery -- familiar England failings -- have kept England away from the top honours in one-day cricket and football for half-a-century. But rugby is different. England are one of only four nations to have won it.

© Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Time to ease up on the gallows-humour, then. Time to savour the notion that England, playing this World Cup on their own turf, have the capacity to beat any team in the tournament. It's like being Brazil or Germany in football; like being Australia or India in one-day cricket. For once the jingoists are right: England are a power in the sport and a threat in the tournament.

Before the action we had an opening ceremony that was mercifully brief, compared to the elephantine evenings we have all endured at the Olympic Games, but with the same essential ingredients of volume and sentimentality. Prince Harry, wearing the best red royal beard since Henry VIII, spoke a few words to add to rugby's collective myth, stressing the sport's "values". Just what the rugby types long to hear. Rugby union thrives on the odd notion that it is more moral than other sports: that it somehow makes better people of those that play it.

A more snobbish notion could hardly be imagined. And I wonder how this will play out over the next six weeks as the tournament gathers pace and intensity. I wonder how the normal sports enthusiast -- as opposed to rugby buff -- will cope with rugby's effortless sense of its own superiority. For there is no doubt that if England get on a run and get out of the frighteningly tough group they are in -- they have Australia and Wales to play -- the tournament will start to surf the wave in the home nation.

England 35-11 Fiji (video available in Australia only)

Big events always begin with a little spike in cynicism. The pre-tournament nonsense gets up people's noses: it's not really that exciting, is it? But then the action begins and people get sucked in. Big events are on terrestrial television: open to everyone and everyone starts to talk about it.

Rugby tends to be a game for the insiders. It only breaks outside this in the international game, and really only becomes a national concern for six weeks in four years. But when there's a World Cup in the year, rugby becomes the people's game: and for a brief period its mysteries, obscurities, eccentricities, follies and glories are shared by everyone in England with sporting blood in the veins.

So after tonight's intermittently stirring struggle, what will England's occasional rugby followers make of it all? First of course a complete bafflement at the opacity of the rules, and with it, a bewilderment about the constant need to refer things to the Television Match Official. Better, I suppose, to try and get it right rather than to tell players that accepting incompetent decisions is an aspect of their moral duty. But it's not the best spectacle.

I wonder how many English people cheered for the underdogs. I may just have done so myself, in memory of all the wonderful Fijian play I have seen in the seven-a-side version of the game -- a game that makes its Olympic debut next summer in Rio, remember.

And Fiji did some great stuff, with two brilliant tries, one of which was -- rightly -- disallowed by the TMO. There was a whiff of the upset in the air, but never much more. That is something that people more accustomed to football will have to get used to: in rugby the overdogs almost always win. Scoring tends to reflect possession and territory pretty accurately.

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Which is another thing that those unfamiliar with rugby must get used to: the fact that a lot of the early matches will be pretty one-sided. Ultimately this match was part of that eternal pattern: England winning 33-11 and collecting a bonus point for scoring four tries, the last one with the last play of the game.

So England made a bright start without looking anything like champions. Well, opening matches are tough in any tournaments: you are always trying to do something more than just win, if you are among the favourites, and that desire is often counter-productive. England had visions of sending out messages to all their most feared opponents -- especially Wales and Australia -- and getting the entire nation behind them on account of the scintillating sport they played.

As it turned out, they made quite a lot of heavy weather but did enough. Fiji were good enough to cause a little anxiety, but didn't have what it takes to cause a serious attack of self-doubt. So England look good but not great: which is kind of where they are, and where they have been for quite a while.

When England won the damn thing in 2003 they swaggered into the tournament as world-beaters. This time if England are to win they will have to grow with the tournament. If they can do so it will provide one of those fabulous sporting journeys that come around every so often. Tonight they looked OK. And then they got lucky. That's the thing to hold on to. Stay lucky and everything else will follow.

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