A smile filled England head coach Stuart Lancaster’s face following his side’s 35-11 victory over Fiji in their Rugby World Cup opener at Twickenham – but it will have been more in relief than jubilation.
The scoreline – boosted by two tries in the final 10 minutes – flattered the hosts who escaped with their World Cup hopes intact – if a little dented.
They were worryingly poor at times against their Tier 2 rivals who were very much in the contest until the final quarter and perhaps just one more moment of brilliance away from what would have been one of the greatest shocks in the history of the tournament.
England were at pains to stress that this was always going to be a bruising contest against a Fiji side that are both dangerous and in-form, but they would not have expected to be fighting for their World Cup lives so late in the clash.
The headlines will proclaim a bonus point victory and detail what could be a priceless advantage in a ‘Pool of Death’ that also contains fellow giants Australia and Wales, but Lancaster’s side have plenty to work on.
They struggled to dominate up front as they had been expected to do and the misfiring lineout and scrum will have also caused concern.
The commitment in defence was never in doubt with great line speed largely shackling the much-vaunted Fiji backs but there was further bother at the breakdown where their frustration led to worrying lapses in discipline.
That lack of control impacted on the performance of fly-half George Ford and scrum-half Ben Youngs for whom the second pool outing against Wales cannot come soon enough – but they may not get the opportunity.
But while England collectively struggled to find their best, full-back Mike Brown had no such trouble in producing the kind of brilliance that was worthy of the occasion.
Seemingly free of the physical and mental scars of his recent battle with concussion, Brown was at his dynamic best throughout.
His heroics in defence included a tackle that did just enough to deny Fiji scrum-half Nikola Matawalu what would have been a clear contender for try of the tournament, but it was in attack he really shone with two tries and a lung-busting 172m with ball in hand making the Man of the Match decision simple.
But as industrious and effective as Brown was from first whistle to last, he was never going to get the job done on his own.
England laboured to an 18-8 half-time lead, that owed as much to Fiji’s shortcomings as much as their own industry with a penalty try and a wild lineout option gift-wrapping them points.
However, the hosts failed to hammer home their advantage and a lack of energy, and the failure of the Twickenham crown to rally their team despite repeated efforts to do so, prompted Lancaster to ring the changes shortly after the break
The introduction of a talent-heavy bench was almost as inspired as the performance of Brown.
The introduction of Billy and Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury and Richard Wigglesworth and then Owen Farrell and Sam Burgess provided some much-needed urgency and not for the first time helped England bounce back.
It was a reminder that the physical and mental demands of the modern elite game is a 23-man game.
Long gone are the days when such players were seen as reserves or replacements and asked to deputise for their first-choice counterparts.
These players are now labelled ‘finishers’, tasked with ensuring the game continues to go to plan or executing a new one in the hope of changing the course of the contest.
It clearly helps when you are blessed with the kind of strength in depth that Lancaster has at his disposal.
The bite offered by the likes of Billy Vunipola, Burgess and Farrell in particular was pivotal in finally silencing the often breath-taking brilliance of their rivals with Nemani Nadolo also worthy of particular praise.
England escaped with a bloody nose and will console themselves with the fact that their main rivals for a place in the quarter-finals still have to face the Fijians who will take heart and confidence from their performance.
Perhaps more telling for Lancaster and his team was their ability to overcome the emotion of the occasion.
If they needed another reminder of the significance of the game – and the tournament as a whole – they got one as they descended the team bus on their arrival for the game.
A sea of fans that had swarmed around the entrance to the stadium and along with hundreds more craning from every possible vantage point, they exploded into full voice as soon as they caught sight of their heroes.
The pressure was cranked up a little further with fireworks and fanfare preceding kick-off and contributing to a crackling atmosphere the like of which has never been seen at English rugby’s HQ.
Until their next game that is, with the visit of Wales next weekend poised to raise the expectancy, pressure and tournament to a whole new level.