Not for a decade have England kicked off a Rugby World Cup feeling so inwardly upbeat. Jonny Wilkinson was already in the casualty ward before their opening game in France eight years ago and their display against the United States in Lille was correspondingly grim. They were only slightly better against Argentina in Dunedin during 2011, a tight 13-9 victory being swiftly overtaken by livelier off-field developments.
This time there is a completely different mood. Aside from the odd shower which has been forecast for the opening ceremony – a 20-minute show entitled ‘Breaking New Ground’ directed by the choreographer Kim Gavin – everything else is set fair. Tom Wood, their combative flanker, is one of many who cannot wait for the clock to tick round to 8pm. “I feel ready and prepared and feel I can speak for the whole team,” he said, adamant the home side can “step up another gear” again compared with their final warm-up outing against Ireland.
And why not? As Graham Rowntree, England’s forwards coach, repeatedly stressed, this is the time of his players’ lives: a home World Cup, no nagging injury worries, a country on the edge of its collective seat. There comes a point when self-doubt is replaced by total conviction and Chris Robshaw’s side appear to be there already.
Wood stopped short of suggesting England are nailed-on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup but his quiet optimism was striking. “There are some great teams out there and I can’t promise you success but all I can say is we’ve left no stone unturned in terms of our preparation. I feel prepared and I hope the lessons learned from our Six Nations campaigns will stand us in good stead.”
He was harking back, not for the first time, to England’s spectacular failure to land a grand slam in Cardiff in 2013, the last time they approached a game awash with so much hype. “I’d definitely say losing in the Millennium Stadium was a turning point for us. The occasion caught us off guard that day.” England have still not claimed any titles but their resilience in the face of the kind of challenge now facing them is stiffer than it was.
That, at any rate, is Rowntree’s firm belief. England have clearly tired of talking up Fiji’s running threats and wonder if it is not the visitors – clad in white and occupying the home dressing-room – who could be overwhelmed by the scale of the event.
“There’s a lot of talk about this word upset,” Rowntree said. “But we’re in good shape. I don’t spend a lot of time drawing parallels with the previous tournament but I am exceptionally happy with where we are at this moment. The guys are on their own turf, in front of their families and friends, with 15 million people potentially watching on television and 50 million countrywide supporting them. My question to you is: ‘Which team is the pressure on?’”
Seven successive wins at Twickenham have also helped to foster a certain belief, even if England’s red jerseys and alternative dressing-room arrangements give this fixture a slightly different twist. Rowntree is having flashbacks to London 2012 – “You can feel it walking around … it reminds me of the Olympics” – and Wood feels similarly.
“Stuart [Lancaster] has talked a lot about being on the front foot in terms of English identity – we know what that can do for us and we want to try to harness it. We know what it did for the British athletes at the Olympics and we want some of that. We have to go out and give the crowd something to cheer. Hopefully on the back of that there will be a snowball effect … they will get behind us and carry us through.”
It will be a slow crawl to kick-off either way. There are only so many coffees in Camberley, dips in the pool, DVD box-sets or afternoon naps anyone can rack up on days like this. Apparently a few short, sharp exercises can trigger a release of testosterone which might be useful later in the evening, but the biggest trick is not to allow the brain to drift too far beyond the need to bury Fiji when the chance arises.
At some stage someone will also have to mention bonus points, which could well have a bearing on who qualifies from Pool A, but England’s priority is to start fast and keep the accelerator down. Defensively the Fijians’ lust for adventure will also be tested early. “If they want to run from deep and throw the ball around that is brilliant, but it is very difficult to do in face of a white wall – or a red wall – of pressure,” said Wood.
The gifted Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu will take some subduing whatever happens; Fiji are not ranked ninth in the world (above Scotland) by accident. But by the time the curtain falls on the World Cup’s opening night it will be a turn-up of staggering proportions if England have not run out winners, possibly by a margin of 20 points, as their bench muscle and improved fitness take effect in the final quarter.
Tossed into the equation, too, will be some other significant first-night indicators, from the application of World Rugby’s new crackdown on diving and the referee Jaco Peyper’s interpretations at the breakdown to the transport picture around south-west London. Fiji’s coach, John McKee, suggested the game would pretty much “stop a nation” back in the south Pacific; just wait until he sees the rush-hour traffic out of Hammersmith this evening.
For those safely plonked in front of a TV screen or lucky enough to be there in person, however, the wait will shortly be over. Can the home side deliver with the rest of the world looking over their shoulders? Or will the sense of expectation prove too much. A small initial step for England will feel like a giant leap if they can rise to such a heady occasion.