England and Fiji hardly charged into the World Cup quarter-finals in a blaze glory, but neither will care as they seek to grasp a glorious opportunity to progress while the sport’s four best teams are forced to slug it out in Paris.
The vagaries of the draw presented a less-than-perilous route to the knockout stage for the pair and, having navigated it in contrasting ways, both can still be justifiably confident going into Sunday’s clash.
In any other year England would be overwhelming favourites but, having lost to Fiji for the first time in August and then seen them bundle Australia out of the tournament, the odds have shortened – though only a little.
Fiji are playing in their third quarter-final after 1987 and 2007, while England, who have only once failed to make the last eight, are seeking a sixth semi-final appearance.
England arrive on the back of four wins, but from wildly varying performances. The opener against Argentina with 14 men for 77 minutes was a superb display, all the more so coming off the back of such a wretched August warm-up campaign.
They eventually proved too strong for Japan and then turned on the style to hammer debutantes Chile. Already assured of top spot in the pool, they were poor in scraping an 18-17 win over Samoa, but coach Steve Borthwick tried to turn that into a positive saying it was the tough test they needed after two weeks off.
Their style will not have won them any admirers and, if anything, they are likely to be even tighter on Sunday as they seek desperately to avoid being dragged into a loose, open game against the sport’s most dangerous broken field runners.
Borthwick has made two major selection calls for the match – dropping George Ford, allowing Owen Farrell to slide back to flyhalf, and starting Marcus Smith at fullback
Farrell will look to move an unchanged pack around the field in a slow but deliberate strategy, harvest points via penalties and then seek to exploit gaps late on.
However, it is the presence of Smith, normally a flyhalf that gives long-suffering England fans a glimpse of hope that they can also find a way to the tryline through their backline.
In his only other start in the position against Chile, Smith brought long-forgotten pace, variety and sleight of hand to the attack and though Fiji will provide considerably stiffer opposition, he undoubtedly poses different questions.
“I think that these players will embrace this challenge,” Borthwick said. “There are a lot of players here who have experienced knockout rugby before, players who have lifted a lot of trophies at different times in their careers, so my expectation is that they will rise to the occasion.”
Fiji were good but unlucky against Wales, played brilliantly to beat Australia, did just enough against Georgia and were then almost undone in defeat against Portugal, scraping the losing bonus point they needed for progress.
It would be wrong, however, to pitch Sunday’s clash as a classic Roundheads v Cavaliers. The most notable aspect of Fiji’s campaign is that, alongside their undoubted individual ball handling and running skills, they have improved markedly in the more basic aspects of the sport.
Their scrum, featuring two 100-plus kilograms (220.46 lb) props, is one of the best in the tournament and they have had considerable breakdown success, much of it via the remarkable Levani Botia.
The lineout remains vulnerable, however, and they have shown signs of “switching off” for periods in all their matches – areas England will target mercilessly.
England: 15-Marcus Smith, 14-Jonny May, 13-Joe Marchant, 12-Manu Tuilagi, 11-Elliot Daly, 10-Owen Farrell (captain), 9-Alex Mitchell, 8-Ben Earl, 7-Tom Curry, 6-Courtney Lawes, 5-Ollie Chessum, 4-Maro Itoje, 3-Dan Cole, 2-Jamie George, 1-Ellis Genge.
Replacements: 16-Theo Dan, 17-Joe Marler, 18-Kyle Sinckler, 19-George Martin, 20-Billy Vunipola, 21-Danny Care, 22-George Ford, 23-Ollie Lawrence.
Fiji: 15-Ilaisa Droasese, 14-Vinaya Habosi, 13-Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), 12-Josua Tuisova, 11-Semi Radradra, 10-Vilimoni Botitu, 9-Frank Lomani, 8-Viliame Mata, 7-Levani Botia, 6-Lekima Tagitagivalu, 5-Albert Tuisue, 4-Isoa Nasilasila, 3-Luke Tagi, 2-Tevita Ikanivere, 1-Eroni Mawi
Replacements: 16-Sam Matavesi, 17-Peni Ravai, 18-Mesake Doge, 19-Meli Derenalagi, 20-Vilive Miramira, 21-Simione Kuruvoli, 22-Iosefo Masi, 23-Sireli Maqala.