He's back, which has to be good news. Olly Barkley, that is. England missed every hair on the Bath midfielder's head against the Springboks last Friday night, and if that hair is likely to go from black to grey in the space of 80 minutes this weekend – the Samoans tend to have that effect on people – the world champions will happily give him a lifetime's supply of Grecian 2000 if he brings a dash of vim and vigour to a one-paced back division and spares them the ignominy of an embarrassingly early departure from this tournament.
Jonny Wilkinson is back too, which also helps. As Brian Ashton, the head coach, pointed out yesterday, England will have their best kickers – and, indeed, their best distributors – on the field simultaneously. Quite where this leaves the likes of Andy Farrell and Mike Catt in the great scheme of things is anyone's guess, but with Mathew Tait filling the hole left by the injured Jamie Noon at outside centre and Mark Cueto returning to the wing, there is at least a chance of the holders operating at a pace above and beyond the pedestrian.
"I want to see us play rugby that is not only better than the rugby we played against the United States and South Africa, but also different," Ashton said in Versailles yesterday. "Wilkinson is the ultimate professional, a man who has achieved great things for English rugby. Barkley has been the form inside back in the squad, and it really was a great shame that injury prevented him playing against the Boks. I'm looking to the two of them to bring some control, some balance, some shape, and I'm confident they will do this.
"The meetings we held over the weekend were designed to clear away the debris of the South Africa game and get some clarity of thought as to how we will approach our final two pool matches. As decision-makers, Jonny and Olly played an important part in the process. I don't think we'll be anxious going into this fixture. I think the situation we face will adrenalise us."
Back in the capital, the Samoan coach Michael Jones was in equally bullish mood, having recovered from a humiliating weekend experience of his own. "We've done a lot of soul-searching," he said when asked about Sunday's unexpected and demoralising defeat by Tonga in Montpellier, "and it is hard to keep people motivated when such things happen. But we do things the Samoan way. We don't try to gloss over events, but do as our parents would have done. We speak a few home truths, but we do it with love. It's a tough-love approach."
If Jones, fretting over an unhelpful injury to his goal-kicking back Gavin Williams, was not planning to name his side until tomorrow, Ashton bit the bullet early by announcing changes in virtually every area of his team. Josh Lewsey moves from wing to full-back, despite the coach's assertion earlier in the season that the World Cup-winning Wasp was not his idea of an international No 15, while Andy Gomarsall replaces Shaun Perry at scrum-half. George Chuter is in the middle of the front row, having pushed a tired Mark Regan onto the bench, while Joe Worsley replaces Tom Rees at open-side flanker. (This last selection also came as a surprise, given Ashton's pre-tournament indication that the experiment with Worsley in the breakaway position had run its course).
"I knew the Lewsey question would crop up," Ashton said, with a wry smile. "I still believe Cueto has a future as an international full-back, but we've talked it through and it's clear he hasn't made the necessary progress as quickly as we'd both hoped. I have no problem with Josh playing in the position this weekend."
And Worsley? "Joe has shown at club level that he can deliver big-tackling performances in big matches. If ever there was a time for him to stand up and be counted at Test level, this is it. I appreciate the fact that he's not an out-and-out No 7, but against these opponents, we need his particular qualities."
A couple of players will feel deeply frustrated at being passed over for the must-win meeting with the Pacific islanders. Steve Borthwick of Bath, the pre-tournament favourite to run the England line-out, lost out to Ben Kay as a direct result of the first-phase problems against France in the last of the August warm-up fixtures, but the Leicester lock's performances to date have been some way short of Welford Road class, let alone world class.
As for Lewis Moody, the sense of frustration bites ever deeper. The red-rose pack, once guaranteed to give a decent account of themselves whatever the circumstances, are not the dark force of old. Moody would at least have brought some old-fashioned bastardy to the mix.
"I'm sure the point will be made before this game, even if different words are used," said Ashton, acknowledging that the forwards have been too conciliatory by half since arriving in France. "Everyone knows the scenario." The coach would be wise to double-check. England's opponents may have been too cautious for their own good against their fellow big-hit merchants from Tonga last weekend, but from this point on, caution is purely for weaklings. Jones has promised to summon the real Samoan spirit in Nantes, and it would be as well to take him at his word.
England team to face Samoa
World Cup Pool A in Nantes on Saturday, 3pm:
15 J Lewsey (Wasps)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 M Tait (Newcastle)
12 O Barkley (Bath)
11 M Cueto (Sale Sharks)
10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)
9 A Gomarsall (Quins)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 G Chuter (Leicester),
3 M Stevens (Bath),
4 S Shaw (Wasps),
5 B Kay (Leicester),
6 M Corry (Leicester, capt)
7 J Worsley (Wasps),
8 N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: M Regan (Bristol), P Freshwater (Perpignan), S Borthwick (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), P Richards (London Irish), A Farrell (Saracens), D Hipkiss (Leicester).Reuse content