Rugby World Cup: England hope for slow burn

The fiery Samoans present a serious challenge to a troubled side still waiting to spark into action; Chris Rea believes that Jack Rowell has adopted a damage limitation strategy
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EVER since the opening match overturned so many preconceived notions, there has been speculation that England would not be averse to losing a pool match, the premise being that the Springboks would be a more appealing proposition in the quarter-final than the vengeful Australians. The management insisted that it was preposterous idea. To throw a match, they protested, would not only be morally unjustifiable but it would be seriously damaging to morale. Yet the selection of the side to play Western Samoa this afternoon leaves us in no doubt about England's preference. Quite simply, if this was a game England had to win, that is not the side they would have picked.

Had England been hell-bent on victory, they would surely have selected the best 15 available. The Samoans, by their victories over Italy and Argentina, have convincingly proved that only England's best would be good enough to ensure victory. What Jack Rowell will never admit, of course, is that he has selected a side to lose. But what he has done is to give England an escape route should, as now seems possible, the Samoans win the game and with it the pool.

By resting so many front-rank players, the England manager can argue that this was effectively a second-string combination but one which strove as hard as it could for victory. No question therefore of throwing the match, yet an acceptable limitation to the damage done to morale and team spirit, a much less serious business than the defeat of the first XV by opponents fired by their previous successes and positively salivating at the opportunity of whacking one of the world's most highly-rated sides.

There was sufficient evidence from the way they played against Italy and Argentina that the Samoans might have run England's best very close, and at the very least have given them a physical pounding from which they might have taken more than a week to recover.

On both occasions, the Samoans finished strongly, whereas England in their opening matches have failed to last the pace. Predictably, the Samoans have selected their strongest side, although the absence of Darren Kellett, their fly-half and goal-kicker, is a serious blow. But, as they have so ably demonstrated, they have the ability to make the most of limited possession, combining intuitive flair with hard-headed organisation.

There is, of course, always the chance that this shadow side will win the match. It brings to mind the Mel Brooks film, The Producers, when a scam to create the biggest flop in theatre history backfired horribly when the play became a monster hit. No one would enjoy the irony more than Rowell. In any case, after almost a month of living and training at sea level, playing the Springboks at altitude is arguably a harder test than confronting the Wallabies in Cape Town.

There will certainly be no lack of determination on the players' part. They have no wish to be humbled and, for a few of them, there are higher goals to attain. For Dean Richards, it is crucial that he convinces the selectors of his fitness. Phil de Glanville has shown himself to be the sharpest of the three centres and there may still be a chance that England will persevere with the policy of playing Jason Leonard at tight head, with Graham Rowntree on the loose - although Rowell's admission following the Italian game that Rowntree had been required to take a massive leap in class was not altogether encouraging for the Leicester man.

The preference of Ian Hunter on the wing over Damian Hopley, given the Northampton full-back's lack of match practice, is not the least bizarre selection in a team which does little to allay the fear that England are sorely troubled.

If there is one consolation in what has been a wretchedly disappointing start to England's World Cup campaign, it is that they are not alone in their misery. Apart from a 20-minute spell against Canada, Australia, the defending champions and not exactly the epitome of humility going into this tournament, were pitiful in their first two matches, and not much better yesterday. The Springboks, jet-lagged from their supersonic flight on the opening day, failed to get off the ground against the impoverished Romanians and even the All Blacks, by far the most convincing side so far, have played in fits and starts so far.

But beware the slow burners. Early crises are not so unusual in international competitions of this nature. How often have Brazil, West Germany and Italy been pale imitations of themselves in the opening jousts of soccer's World Cup, only to burst into full bloom in the latter stages? The All Blacks have plenty in reserve, so do the Springboks and Australians. So, we must assume, do England, although where they differ from the others is that they have not yet permitted us so much as a peek at what they have to offer.

Rob Andrew's contention after the Italian game that England had palpably improved on their opening performance against the Pumas was nothing more than captain-speak. Within the squad there is the realistic acknowledgement of the fact that England are struggling to find a pattern to their play. Quite why this should be so is a mystery. The word which describes their first two games is sluggish. This is particularly true of the forwards, who appear to have left their best work on the training ground, where they have been worked almost to distraction.

Of the pack, only Jason Leonard, Martin Bayfield and, against Italy, Tim Rodber have come anywhere near replicating their form during the domestic season. This is the main worry for Rowell. At this level it would be more than England could cope with to have three players in the side performing below their best. To have as many as seven or eight which, at present, is what it amounts to, would give them no chance at all of progressing beyond the quarter-finals, whether it is Australia or South Africa who provide the opposition. Whatever England's problems, they are at least still in the tournament, which by tonight will lose some of those countries and individuals who have contributed so richly to its success.

There has been nothing more impressive so far - with the possible exception of Graeme Bachop's pass and Andrew Mehrtens' ability to field it - than the scrummaging of the Argentines. They have played their two best games since the retirement of Hugo Porta yet find themselves going home while lesser sides remain.

That is the luck of the draw just as it was when they were given referees who were singularly unsympathetic to their methods. But then, with one or two exceptions, notably Derek Bevan's performance in the opening game, this World Cup has been a success despite and not because of the refereeing.

England v Western Samoa

at King's Park, Durban

J Callard Bath 15 M Umaga Wellington

I Hunter Northampton 14 B Lima Marist

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 T Vaega Counties

P de Glanville Bath 12 T Fa'amasino Vaimoso

R Underwood Leicester 11 G Leaupepe Counties

M Catt Bath 10 E Puleitu Marist

D Morris Orrell 9 T Nu'uali'itia Auckland

G Rowntree Leicester 1 M Mika Otago

G Dawe Bath 2 T Leiasamaivo Moata'a

V Ubogu Bath 3 G Latu Vaimoso

M Johnson Leicester 4 D Williams Colomiers

R West Gloucester 5 L Falaniko Marist

S Ojomoh Bath 6 P Leavasa Apia

D Richards Leicester 8 P Lam Auckland, capt

N Back Leicester 7 S Tatupu Auckland

Referee: P Robin (France). Kick-off: 7.0 (ITV).