Feverish England are ready to take the first stride towards a historic Rugby World Cup triumph on home soil when they begin their quest against Fiji tonight, says coach Graham Rowntree.
Years of preparation and anticipation reach fruition at Twickenham this evening when the hosts face a tricky opening chapter to their so-called Group of Death in the tournament curtain-raiser.
Invoking memories of the London 2012 Olympics, in which British athletes were swept to unprecedented success on a tide of national fervour, Rowntree yesterday brushed off fears England might be undone by first-night nerves and insisted players would seize their shot at immortality.
“For our guys, this is the time of their lives,” said the forwards coach. “They are on their own turf, in front of their families, with potentially 15m people watching on TV. They will have 50m people supporting them. The players are aware of that support, so which team is the pressure on?
“We can feel the excitement. It reminds me of the Olympics. It simmered and simmered and then it was here and the whole country got behind it.”
This Rugby World Cup is expected to be the biggest yet, with record ticket sales of more than 2.25m and every try set to be beamed into as many as 772m homes worldwide – a 15 per cent increase on four years ago.
It is also likely to prove a defining moment in the tenures of England head coach Stuart Lancaster and captain Chris Robshaw, whose quiet determination have won plaudits but, to date, no titles.
Fiji arrive buoyed by claiming the Pacific Nations Cup last month and threaten to derail England’s hopes of repeating their 2003 success before it has gathered momentum.
Lancaster’s men can ill afford a slip in a Group A also containing Australia, Wales and Uruguay, but Rowntree is confident the 31-man squad have been primed for this fixture for weeks.
“There’s a lot of talk about this word ‘upset’, but we’ve prepared well for this game,” he added.
“It’s been a long three months and a tough camp. But we’ve been ready for a couple of weeks. We’ve trained exceptionally well. We’ve had a good work-out against some great nations in France and Ireland in our warm-up games. The lads are fitter than they’ve ever been. I’m excited for them.”
The other Home Nations play their opening fixtures over the coming days: Ireland take on Canada tomorrow in Cardiff, where Wales meet Uruguay 24 hours later, while Scotland start with Japan on Wednesday in Gloucester. New Zealand begin their defence against Argentina on Sunday at Wembley.