England v Fiji: James Haskell says forget Olympics, Saturday is different

England v Fiji: James Haskell says forget Olympics, Saturday is different

England welcome Fiji to Twickenham on Saturday and they are polar opposites of last weekend's opponents South Africa.

Where the Boks were big, strong and predictable, Fiji - who won Seven’s gold as rugby union returned to the Olympics in Rio this summer - are as explosive, creative and off-the-cuff as you get in Test rugby.

They love to throw it around and offload out of contact but the likes of Leone Nakarawa, who won gold in Rio, will not get nearly the same kind of time and space they did in the sevens.

The 6ft 7in second row and his colleagues will probably still produce some moments of magic, but Saturday's game will be a very different kettle of fish to their Rio romp.

Not many can compete at the top in sevens and the full-size game, but Leone Nakarawa is no ordinary player

'England must hunt in pairs'

Fiji may be a very different side to South Africa but they still present a very physical challenge.

They are one of the most skilful rugby nations in the world but they are also big, big men, second behind only the Tongans in size.

Trying to tackle them can be a nightmare. If you go high you can get bounced off, but if you go low they've got a high-quality offloading game.

They also anticipate what is going to come off more than any other team and more often than not there is someone there to take the pass, no matter how unexpected it might seem.

When you play the likes of South Africa and they give it to one of their big blokes, you know he's going to run straight at you.

But against Fiji there are five or six thoughts going through your head when they've got the ball because these guys can produce all manner of offloads, if they haven't skinned you first.

Mako Vunipola (right) and his fellow front-row players will hope to give England an advantage in the scrum on Saturday

The key is to hunt in pairs - one goes high, the other low - because you can't afford to let them have a one-one-one because they are quick, powerful and have great footwork.

More so than any other national team they want to play an expansive, loose game, so you have to impose your game-plan and play smart rugby. Its a case of worrying about yourselves first and foremost, and the Fijians second.

During the week, England head coach Eddie Jones has talked about boring them to death.

England have an exciting style of rugby but Fiji want you to play a high-paced game, so you have to ensure everything is done on your terms.

That means if you want a set-piece battle - historically Fiji have not had the best scrum, for example - you'll go to it. However, like any team they will be aware of their weaker areas and will no doubt put in loads of work.

But teams will also practise different scenarios so you've got the ability to match them in other areas - it's crucial to have a couple of game plans.

'Nadolo is such a devastating player'

Nemani Nadolo v George Ford? No contest. And Nadolo might be a better goal-kicker too...

Fiji are always full of surprises.

I would expect them to try to keep things away from the set-piece, so look for quick-tap penalties as they try to get one-on-ones for their big, quick, power runners.

The biggest and quickest of those is the world class winger Nemani Nadolo, who now plays for Montpellier in France having starred in Super Rugby for the Christchurch-based Crusaders.

He also played four games for Exeter - I'm almost disappointed he's not tearing up the Premiership, but then I remember I'd have to tackle him. Well try to tackle him.

I've played against him a few times and he's a devastating player - such size, speed, footwork and skill is some package. And he can kick goals too…

They also have Olympic sevens gold medallist Nakarawa in the second row - his off-loading game is something special.

Fiji thrashed Great Britain to win the sevens in Rio this summer - the country's first Olympic medal

Go low on him and he offloads, go high and you can knock over and he'll just reach around the back to give the pass.

Fiji have so many powerful guys that the first 20 minutes are always a case of venturing into the unknown. You need to settle the game down, deal with the initial enthusiasm and physical endeavour, and get yourselves in the game. First-up tackles and discipline will be key.

Every team will have their defensive leaders, guys who will set the mood and who live and breathe defence, but it's up to all 15 England players to go out and defend on Saturday.

Fiji will try to do the unexpected. Expect cheeky pick-ups at the breakdown and players going through the middle of the breakdown - you can see Nakarawa doing just that for Racing 92 to score his first try for the French champions on YouTube.

Nadolo has been out and about in London this week - you'd know him if you saw him

Smashed by Slammin' Sam Tuitupou

The biggest tackle I was ever on the receiving end of came from Sam Tuitupou when I was playing for Wasps against Worcester.

He's not that big but boy can he hit. He must be made of concrete. It also helps that he loves smoking people. You can see it in his face. He will go hunting for big hits.

I was flat out, on the way to score,, and he came out of my blind-spot and smashed me sideways, knocking the ball out of my hands in the process. I was a little winded and wondered where he had come from. I also thought 'I wish I had been good at another non-contact sport'.

Later I watched it with one of the old England coaches, who told me: "You can give a bit more there, hold onto the ball."

I was just looking at him like 'are you kidding me? Keep hold of the ball'? I was completely ended. The only way I could have held onto the ball was if it was strapped to me like a car roof rack.

Some wags might suggest the biggest tackle was by the post I ran into in Cardiff in the win over Wales in 2015. It was certainly effective at stopping me. I still get heat for that every day. I still maintain there was not much I could do.

The biggest I ever dished out was a huge hit against Jordan Crane playing for Wasps against Leicester. And no, it's not the late one you can see on the internet, this one was perfectly timed. It was a clean dump tackle.

The one on David Pocock in the second-Test win over Australia this summer was also quite satisfying, I have to admit.

Mind you, I once lined up scrum-half Niko Matawalu, who is on the bench for Fiji on Saturday, and he stepped one way, then stepped the other, and ran right round me, leaving me clutching at thin air. Embarrassing to say the least.

There's also been talk of Ben Ryan, who coached them to Olympic sevens gold, looking to get a Super Rugby team for Fiji, and I think it would be amazing as they have such unbelievable players scattered across the world.

So many clubs have players from the Pacific Islands and they're often the best players within those teams.

The game is growing so rapidly around the world, and China recently announced a $100m, 10-year investment in the sport by Alisports in partnership with the Chinese rugby authorities.

I think it will be amazing if China develops the game.

They have more than a billion people and you can see by what they do in the Olympics that if you distil that talent and get the country behind it, something impressive could occur.

I will be interested to see what happens. I've never been to China but in a few years, once Eddie Jones and Dai Young have retired me, maybe I'll have a look at the Beijing Dragons.

'Rugby is still the most accessible sport for fans'

There is money coming into the sport but I don't think the game's values are being compromised.

I was saying just the other day that we are still the most accessible sport and the only one where - from club to international level - fans have total access to players.

I love interacting with fans but there has to be a balance. Someone grabbing you in a headlock for a selfie is not always great, and the other day at Twickenham someone was gesturing for me to come over and sign something when I was on air. They then look disappointed. I always stop for everyone, but sometimes it's not possible.

I was pointing at the headphones to suggest I was literally on television but he kept going. Generally the fans are great though and I think that relationship between players and fans is still one of the best things about rugby. Social media has broken down those barriers even more. It's just important to understand that not everything you see or read is real.

So who's going to win on Saturday?

England will win. I just think that with the structure they have it will give them the edge.

They will try to meet fire with fire in defence but will worry about themselves and have the game plan in place to secure victory.

There was some disappointment after last week because there were certain things that didn't go well in the win over South Africa, and Eddie and his coaching staff will have been tough on the players this week because he aspires to excellence. 

The players will also have wanted to crank things up. The environment is such that it's so competitive, everyone wants to work hard and improve.

Fiji will produce those individual moments but hopefully England will close them down and not allow them time on the ball to produce those sevens skills.

I know England have silky skills of their own.

Whatever happens, the neutral or die-hard rugby fan will enjoy a great spectacle.

Hopefully it will be a cracker.

James Haskell was speaking to BBC Sport's James Standley.

– Entry was posted on November 18th, 2016 by James Haskell

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