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England ready to face Fiji in Rugby World Cup opener

AP

The countdown clocks are nearing the final minutes to the Rugby World Cup.

More than 2.3 million tickets, 94 percent of capacity, have been sold. Trains and buses to carry the record crowds are standing by, the London Eye has been decked out with the flags of all 20 teams, and the opening ceremony celebrating rugby’s birth in England has been rehearsed.

It’s finally time to play.

An England side four years in the making and still considered better contenders for the 2019 title than this year, will launch the show in its Twickenham stronghold on Friday and maybe even give the performance that sparks the tournament to life.

Or will it be Fiji that sets the tone for the tournament? The heavy underdog seems to have been served up for England to gobble up as the Cup’s first course.

With a pack that’s comparable in size to England’s and a backline that’s scarier, Fiji has been warning the tournament host since it landed that it is not intimidated and not making up the numbers.

“I have faith we can surprise the world,” Fiji captain Akapusi Qera said.

England has spared no expense in its preparation, including a high-altitude training camp in Colorado in July. And yet even its own professional rugby director, Rob Andrew, is more hopeful than confident that the team will peak enough over the next six weeks.

Coach Stuart Lancaster deserves all plaudits for overhauling the embarrassing 2011 Cup team and giving England responsibility and belief, supported by the increasingly respected captain Chris Robshaw.

Lancaster’s latest push has been to try and make them more positive, and follow the lead of the nation’s soccer and cricket teams.

Most of the squad was in high school when England won the 2003 Cup in Sydney, and their youthfulness comes across in tactical naivety, failings in game management, and blowing chances.

In the warm-ups, England was still hot and cold. It has a pack of bread-winners, but the backline remains in flux, notably the centers.

Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph will start only their second test together, two weeks after their first. Sam Burgess, the rugby league star who switched to union a year ago and was used by his club as a loose forward, was the midfield backup.

Their game plan is simple enough: Squeeze the Fijians in the forwards, stay tight, kick intelligently, and count on them cracking in the second half.

“They tire quicker than other teams — you can’t be that fast and that powerful and sustain it,” England lock Courtney Lawes said.

The Fijians’ results back him up. They led New Zealand Maori 26-10 at halftime and lost by a point in July, swapped the lead late with Tonga four times, blew a 27-10 lead against Samoa after 51 minutes in a draw, and barely shrugged them off again a second time to become the Pacific champion.

They were lucky against Japan, losing two forwards to yellow cards in the last five minutes and somehow not conceding a penalty try.

In the last warm-up against Canada, Fiji led 40-8, but when scrumhalf Nikola Matawalu went off with a sore groin before halftime, the wheels fell off, too.

“We know that to be successful on Friday we will have to play for the full 80 (minutes),” coach John McKee said.

History says the English will win big. It has won all five previous tests against Fiji, and averaged 52 points at Twickenham.

These Fijians, though, are not like any of their predecessors. Unlike their last test at Twickenham in 2012, when they gathered less than a week before the test, Fiji has been settled for 18 months and in camp since June, when all of their overseas-based players paid their own way home.

If — a big if — the forwards can hold England, take care of their set-pieces, and make the odd turnover, then Fiji has the backs to punch some serious holes.

There’s Matawalu and center Niki Goneva, both at home in English conditions, and goal kicking winger Nemani Nadolo, a star in Super Rugby and predicted to be one of the standouts of this tournament.

England lost the toss with Fiji, and will start in the visitors’ dressing room, wearing its alternative red kit. That may be all it loses.