Saracens No.8 Billy Vunipola clinched a last-gasp bonus point as a Mike Brown-inspired England rode out a spirited display from Fiji in the World Cup opener at Twickenham.
Harlequins full-back Brown sped over in the first-half following a penalty try but Fiji, inspired by hulking flyer Nemani Nadolo, threatened to spoil the occasion for the hosts.
Nadolo crashed over before half-time and, if not for a succession of missed points from the tee, the Pacific Islanders could have turned the game on its head.
George Ford had hit three penalties while replacement Owen Farrell added to his fellow fly-half’s tally with five points of his own, before Brown crossed in the 72nd minute to the relief of Twickenham.
And in the very last action of the game, No.8 Vunipola – following a referral to the TMO – was shown to have found the whitewash after a short-range carry. In a pool containing Wales and Australia, the try could be priceless in the hunt for top spot.
Running out to fireworks, flames, an expectant nation plus an estimated 450 million TV viewers – you’d excuse a flutter of Red Rose nerves. But the occasion affected Fiji more in the opening stanza, a Ben Volavola knock-on and then a collapsed scrum handing Ford a penalty on a plate.
The Bath talisman duly obliged and when Brad Barritt strayed offside soon after the restart, Volavola fluffed his
lines from a similar distance.
Aside from a brilliant Anthony Watson take from a cross field kick England were more tentative than telling and their first try was all Fiji’s doing.
Flanker Dominiko Waqaniburotu dangerously brought down Gloucester’s Jonny May and England reverted to what they traditionally do best from the penalty, as a rolling maul dismantled Fiji’s defence. It resulted in a penalty try – the 100th England try under Stuart Lancaster’s reign – and a Nikola Matawalu sin-bin.
Then it was the turn of England’s back to find a gear and if not for a stunning cover tackle from his opposite number Waisea Nayacalevu, Watson could well have scored his first World Cup try.
But the hosts were not to be denied as they stole possession from the ensuing line out quick hands – including a superb tip on from Jonathan Joseph – created space for Brown to steam over on the left, though Ford failed with a tricky conversion.
With 24 minutes on the clock Matawalu had served his time, and he showcased exactly why Bath have brought him to the Aviva Premiership this season after nearly creating a try from nothing.
Sniping the ball from a scrum he concertinaed his way 40 yards up field before evading the clutches of Brown and May with a huge slide on the greasy Twickenham pitch.
A TMO referral showed the ball had dropped out of his palm before touching down, but Matawalu saw justice for his wonderful move done after Fiji turned over from the scrum.
Volavola flung up a gorgeous cross field kick, and the 20 stone of Nadolo came crashing down to earth at the expense of Watson. It was the Crusaders winger’s 16th try in his last 18 Tests.
Nadolo took over kicking duties after Volavola’s miscued conversion and smashed through a penalty, while Ford completed one and missed one to put England up 18-8 to the good at half-time.
England were loose upon the restart and were lucky not to see their lead cut when Nadolo’s penalty slid right following a Barritt block.
In attack they weren’t faring much better, Tom Wood killing a promising move dead with a high tackle amid several wasted opportunities.
The calvalry came on after 55 minutes, the fit-again Wasp Joe Launchbury proving he’s the equal of Nadolo with a thunderous hit and Vunipola matching that with thunderous carries.
Cross-code convert Sam Burgess followed them onto the pitch on the hour but Fiji were growing into the game and if not for another missed Nadolo penalty, England would have had their backs to the wall.
Another lung-busting Nadolo carry then drew Burgess offside and Volavola made no mistake from the tee this time.
Thoughts of the bonus point were now far from England’s mind and replacement Farrell eased the pressure with a penalty after petulance from Peceli Yato at the breakdown in the 67th minute.
However, England finally hit their stride soon after, May and Farrell with two deft offloads before Brown ferreted out the line in the left corner.
Wave after wave of England attack followed and finally, with the clock a full two minutes into the red, Vunipola inched over the line.