When the England coach, Brian Ashton, arrived in France after an insipid warm-up programme he announced that his side would "surprise a few people" in the World Cup. On that score he was correct, although he did not mean it that way.
Two embarrassing performances, in victory against the United States and heavy defeat to South Africa, left the defending champions with no choice but to front up here and this they did, but it was Samoa who walked off to a standing ovation after they had threatened to mug England in a passion play of staggering intensity.
In the end England were mightily relieved to emerge with their bodies intact – well, most of them – and a victory by three goals, a try, four penalties and two drop goals to a goal andfive penalties.
"We stuck to our gameplan and there is much more to come," Martin Corry, the captain and blindside flanker, said. There will have to be. Corry, leading England in the absence of the suspended prop Phil Vickery, scored two tries, the other two coming from the Wasps wing PaulSackey, who at long last injectedsome desperately needed pace into the Red Rose attack.
However, had Jonny Wilkinson not been present, you shudder to think what would have befallen England. The Newcastle fly-half survived a trademark hit from Brian "The Chiro-practor" Lima to massage England through a ferocious, torrid spell in the second half.
"It was nice to see Jonny fit, it was nice to see him back in the side and I'm sure the players felt the same," Ashton said. "But we've still got a hell of a lot of work to do." He added, with only a slight exaggeration: "We've got a fight to the death with Tonga on Friday."
It is difficult to realise that this was Wilkinson's debut in the 2007 World Cup after several billion column inches had been written about him over the last few weeks. Recovered from injury, he contributed 24 points through his golden boot and when Sackeyscored his second try at the death it brought England a bonus point and put them level with Tonga in Pool A.
England, then, can expect another huge Polynesian dust-up in Paris next Friday night. The winners will qualify for the quarter-finals. England have only ever played Tonga once, beating them 101-10 at Twickenham in the 1999 World Cup. What seems certain is that there will be no repeat of that scoreline after Tonga yesterday took South Africa all the way in another stunning advertisement for Pacific Islands rugby.
Michael Jones, the coach of Samoa (population 156,000) had been worried that the essence of the Polynesian game was being lost. Not on this evidence. Sadly, Jones makes his exit as coach of Samoa at the end of the tournament and his country have made a premature exit themselves, but they didn't half make their presence felt. It seems the Samoans cannot quite sustain an 80-minute performance. They probably could if some of their finest players had not emigrated to New Zealand. With their lead reduced to four points, the Red Rose brigade were in need of the inspiring presence of Wilkinson.
Earlier, after Corry's first-minute try had been answered by two Loki Crichton penalties, the Samoans were penalised for handling in a ruck and Wilkinson stepped up to land the penalty, the ball sailing between the posts, behind which were situated thousands upon thousands of white-shirted England supporters. Wilkinson was on target again with another penalty from a similar position, about 35 yards in front of the Samoan posts, and after 20 minutes England's lead had been restored to 16-6.
The stand-off was presented with another opportunity four minutes later but this time his kick sailed right of the upright. On this occasion, as Wilkinson prepared to take the kick, a number of supporters, most of them English and feeling that the Samoans were being hard done by by the referee, Alan Lewis, actually booed their hero.
Nevertheless Wilkinson could not be kept out of the picture, and his intelligent chip to the left-hand corner enabled Sackey, who was appearing on his opposite wing, to win the race for the touchdown. Wilkinson again added the conversion to England's second try and England were ahead 23-6.
Any thoughts that they could relax, however, were rudely interrupted when the admirable Crichton launched a thrilling counterattack from close to his own line, and it was Andy Gomarsall who came to England's rescue with a timely clearance from close in.
The Samoans had demon-strated that they had no intention of lying down, and in the 36th and 40th minutes Crichton added penalties, cutting the deficit to 11 points at half-time
Enter Lima. They don't call him The Chiropractor for nothing. Lima hit Wilkinson with a high tackle. The stand-off was clearly shaken, but it didn't look as if the referee was going to award him anything until Wilkinson gave Lewis a look as if to say: "For Christ's sake, ref." Lima was warned and Wilkinson proceeded to kick the penalty to make it 26-15.
Lima's intervention not only hurt Wilkinson but seemed to galvanise the Samoans, who went about engaging in rugby's equivalent of a street fight. Within minutes they were very much back in the game at 26-22. David Lemi, with a brilliant shift and take, linked with Seilala Mapusua, who found the hooker Mahonri Schwalger, and his kick ahead resulted in a try for the scrum-half Junior Polu. Polu just got a hand to the ball, beating Matthew Tait to a touchdown which was confirmed by the video referee.
England and Wilkinson spent the next 15 minutes on the rack. After Wilkinson was wide with a drop goal attempt and a penalty,England failed to exploit a turnover, and when the move broke down only the desperate intervention of Josh Lewsey, buried beneath four Samoans, presented England conceding another try.
Gradually, but perhaps inevitably, England, who were hugely relieved to see Henry Tuilagi being replaced, began to subdue the uprising. Wilkinson added another drop goal through his left boot in the 69th minute and three minutes later kicked a penalty from the halfway line. The exhausted Samoans only recognised the game was upafter 76 minutes, when Sackey linked with Lewsey and Corry was able to crash over for try number three.
When Wilkinson then released Sackey with an inside pass the right wing, with an excellent finish, provided his country with a bonus point. It was earned the hardest way imaginable.
England: J Lewsey; P Sackey, M Tait, O Barkley, M Cueto; J Wilkinson, A Gomarsall; A Sheridan, G Chuter, M Stevens, S Shaw, B Kay, M Corry (capt), N Easter, J Worsley. Replacements: P Freshwater for Sheridan, 65; S Borthwick for Shaw, 65; L Moody forWorsley, 70; D Hipkiss for Tait, 73.
Samoa: L Crichton; D Lemi, S Mapusua, B Lima, A Tuilagi; E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Polu; K Lealamanua, M Schwalger, C Johnston, J Tekori, K Thompson, D Leo, H Tuilagi, S Sititi (capt). Replacements: F Palaamo for Lealamanua, 62; S So'oialo for Polu, 67; A Vaeluaga for H Tuilagi, 70; J Meafou for Mapusua, 70; L Lui for Lima, 73; J Purdie for Tekori, 75.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).
England man for man marking
5 Josh Lewsey Back at full-back, where Brian Ashton said he wouldn't pick him. Hesitant, funnily enough, and a poor kick for Samoa's try was followed by a mistake which nearly brought another.
7 Paul Sackey Good tries, but doesn't like tackling much. After he caromed off Brian Lima's thighs with an audible slap, you could see why.
6 Mathew Tait One first-half shimmy summed up his Test career: a lovely step took him smack into a Samoan with biceps the size of Birmingham. Later, an over-the-tackle pass almost led to disaster.
5 Olly Barkley Got through his tackling and kicked as a back-up to Wilkinson, but didn't quite look like a banker at inside-centre.
6 Mark Cueto Happier back on the wing as a simple, strong runner. Not lethal, but carries a nasty nip.
7 Jonny Wilkinson Lima pulled out of one chance to pummel him into next week; later, he didn't. Wilkinson picked himself up and kicked a penalty, then seemed rattled before restoring order with a drop, kick and a fine step-and-give for Sackey's second try.
7 Andy Gomarsall Spent the first half well protected by a dominant pack and some of the second not well protected at all. So he looked good, then he didn't as Samoans flew in and mistakes multiplied. Still, finished the game strongly.
6 Andrew Sheridan Off just after Fosi Palaamo, 22st of Leeds-based beef, came on. Again took with him the nagging sense that his impact doesn't quite match his own peculiarly impressive size.
7 George Chuter Good hands, good line-outs, good work around the pitch. Good beard. All round, then, a pretty good display from the Tigers hooker.
7 Matt Stevens Strong in the first half and kept sucking the air into his opera-singers' lungs when things were getting a little out of tune. It's a very real question whether Phil Vickery, the captain, should get his place back next week.
7 Simon Shaw Gallumphed about the pitch to good effect, rather than leaping in the line-out; lifters with hernias are no use to anyone.
7 Ben Kay Did two men's line-out work, because the man next to him was as big as three. Did it all very well, fortunately.
7 Martin Corry Took his first try well, using his weight after being caught lurking on the wing as if it was touch and pass in practice, and took his second with similar strength from close in. Good stuff.
7 Joe Worsley Picked to tackle, tackle and tackle some more. Which he did, dealing with assortedtruck-sized Tuilagis barrelling into him with particularly belligerent intent. Not very creative, but in a scrap likethis that's fair enough.
8 Nick Easter One tackle, head-on into the blue line, suggested England had a Samoan of their own. He is actually from Epsom, not Apia, but the No 8 (pictured) staged his own demolition derby, running hard and tackling like a sock full of bricks. Man ofthe match in a non-showy, non-Jonny kind of a way.
Mark Regan: Not used, which says Chuter is now No 1 No 2.
5 Perry Freshwater: On for Sheridan for the final 15 minutes to do his job as the props opposite tired.
6 Steve Borthwick: On for Shaw and chimed in with some good line-out work to lighten big Ben's burden. Made a carry or two as a bonus.
5 Lewis Moody: Sent off the last time he played Samoa; sent on this time, for Worsley. Took over the tackling duties.
Peter Richards: Not used, as Gomarsall made his mark.
Andy Farrell: Not used, so the debate can wait for a week.
5 Dan Hipkiss: On for Tait and straight into a surging run to set up Corry's second try. Straight into the starting team?
Martin PengellyReuse content