England’s dismal build-up to the World Cup reached its lowest ebb as they collapsed to their first defeat to a current tier-two nation by losing 30-22 to Fiji at Twickenham.
Jonny May raced over to seize an early lead but what followed will have shaken head coach Steve Borthwick as England were outplayed by a side they had dispatched in all seven previous meetings.
Waisea Nayacalevu and Vinaya Habosi touched down to propel Fiji in front and, although tries by Marcus Smith and Joe Marchant hinted that a seismic upset might be avoided, the Islanders had other ideas.
The leaky home defence cracked one final time in the 73rd minute, with Simione Kuruvoli delivering the decisive blow to wrap up a historic victory that will create shockwaves ahead of the World Cup.
Wales and Australia will be eyeing their clashes with their Pool D rivals nervously having seen what unfolded in front of a disappointing crowd of 56,854 at Twickenham.
It was England’s fifth defeat in six matches and was a dismal World Cup send-off that adds to the tension surrounding their pivotal opening game against Argentina on September 9.
No-one will have felt the disappointment more than captain Courtney Lawes, who was making his 100th appearance on a day that is expected to see England drop beneath Fiji in the global rankings.
Steve Borthwick had said the listlessness seen in previous three warm-up matches was a result of being in the midst of a conditioning block and that they would benefit when the load was reduced.
The pressure continues to mount on England head coach Steve Borthwick (David Davies/PA)As they made the brightest start of their four warm-up games, they certainly looked like a side with fresh purpose – Manu Tuilagi making early dents, George Ford fizzing a pass to Ollie Lawrence and May supplying the determined kick-chase that had been missing in Dublin.
May quickly decorated his international comeback with a first try since November 2021 in the left corner after Alex Mitchell and Ford found the veteran Gloucester wing with sharp distribution from a scrum.
It was the first try scored by an England back in 261 minutes and it began to look like Borthwick’s team were emerging from their long spell of underachievement.
But the rest of the first-half belonged to Fiji and once their first attack had unfolded amid a downpour, Caleb Muntz landed a penalty.
The heavy rain had stopped and, while handling was still treacherous, the well-organised Islanders continued to probe for openings that almost produced a dynamic try for Nayacalevu that was ruled out for a marginal forward pass.
Under-pressure England wrestled back the ball and were only denied in the right corner by a try-saving tackle on Max Malins that took place in the moments after prop Eroni Mawi committed a yellow card breakdown offence.
With Mawi still in the sin-bin, Fiji ran in their first try with a little help from weak tackles by May and Freddie Steward on Selestino Ravutaumada that enabled Nayacalevu to cross at the end of a slickly-orchestrated attack.
A brief England assault followed but once this subsided they paid the price for Ben Earl switching off around the ruck to allowed Habosi to dart clear and race over the line.
Smith touched down a Ford chip as tension mounted at Twickenham but with Muntz landing another penalty they still trailed, although there was evidence they had found a second wind.
That was confirmed when Joe Marchant capitalised on the space down the right but when Danny Care dropped the restart they were back under the cosh and the ruthless Fijians pounced through Kuruvoli to claim a famous win.