There is no point denying it, although the reigning world champions will do so until their dying day: for a few horrible minutes either side of the hour mark, England were on their way out of this tournament. The God-fearing folk of Samoa had reduced a 17-point deficit to something negligible and were now slicing opponents in half with horizontal hits that bordered on the sacrilegious. Riding a swelling wave of South Seas ferocity, they set up camp a few feet from their opponents' line and unleashed Henry Tuilagi and Cencus Johnston, the biggest men on the field. In the stand, a French band played the theme tune from the Muppets. Humiliation was in the air.
It is at moments like this that players of genuine international calibre – individuals who understand the true nature of the test presented by what is, after all, a Test match – delve deep into their competitive souls and summon whatever it is that separates them from the common herd. Josh Lewsey did this on Saturday. So too did Martin Corry and Andy Gomarsall. Lewsey secured a ball on the floor, knowing that the islanders' boots would thud into his body and rip into his flesh; Corry and Gomarsall made open-field tackles that almost beggared belief. Together, they got the job done.
Michael Jones, the Samoa coach, performed the same kind of task for the All Blacks on more than one occasion – not least in South Africa in 1996, when the New Zealanders secured their first and only series victory on Springbok soil. A victory by 15 Englishmen said to be earning £8,000 apiece for their afternoon's work over opponents who are barely paid the price of a café au lait is not quite of the same magnitude as those epic silver-ferned triumphs in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, but Jones, generous fellow that he is, recognised something of his former self in the holders' rearguard action.
"I was impressed by the way they stayed the course against a particularly determined band of young Samoan warriors who were throwing the kitchen sink at them," the great flanker said. "It showed quality, it showed professionalism. There were signs in that period, and in the way they finished us off in injury time, that England are on their way back. Certainly, it was a step up from their last performance."
Jones singled out Jonny Wilkinson for special praise. "The man is a perfectionist," he remarked. "More than that, he's gutsy. We sent Henry running at him a couple of times, but he stood his ground. He's all class."
Wilkinson was indeed at the heart of England's best 80 minutes of the tournament – not that the display had to be especially good to see off the competition: a leaden-foot, troll-like victory over the United States in Lens; a complete and utter cop-out against the Springboks in St-Denis. Playing his first World Cup game since dropping the goal that won the Webb Ellis Cup four years ago, he accumulated 22 points with a variety of kicks – the precise margin of difference between the teams. Six of those points, scored between the 74th and 78th minutes, were worth their weight in gold ingots.
Having weathered the Samoan storm, England sent the No 8 Nick Easter stampeding into the Samoan 22 to set up a position from which Wilkinson dropped his second goal of the game, thereby giving the champions the renewed security of a seven-point lead. Then, he landed a penalty from a foot inside his own half. For the islanders, this was the equivalent of a Rocky Marciano hook to the breadbasket. They had given everything of themselves to play their way back into the contest, only to see an hour's blood-stained sacrifice nullified from a distance of 50 metres-plus. Such was their despair, it was little wonder that they conceded two tries in stoppage time.
In one sense, England won in the way English teams always win against the Pacific nations. They exerted pressure at the scrum, they threw their weight around at the line-out, they retained possession for long periods and played the territorial game well enough to force the Samoans into errors and misjudgements.
Twelve years ago, during the pool stage of the third World Cup in South Africa, the red rose army met the islanders after two disappointing performances and beat them by an identical score before doing for the Wallabies in the quarter-finals. As they are on course to meet Australia at precisely the same point in this competition, the parallels seem more than a little spooky.
Yet in reality, those parallels are misleading. For one thing, the '95 victory was far more comfortable than this latest one, in which the scale was distorted by the gift of a chargedown try after 80 seconds and tries by Corry (left) and the fleet-footed Paul Sackey at the last knockings. For another, England have a fourth pool game this time – against Tonga in Paris this coming Friday evening. The Tongans will scrummage harder, and operate more effectively at the line-out, than the Samoans, and while they are ill-equipped to pose as serious a threat out wide their loose forwards are playing as well as any unit in the tournament. The champions should prevail, but at what cost? As Brian Ashton, the head coach, put it on Saturday night: "It will be a fight to the death."
At least England will approach the game having played some constructive rugby and put their names to three tries worthy of the scoring. Sackey's first, 32 minutes in, was a clever effort – the result of some hard-yard driving from Matt Stevens and Simon Shaw, followed by a wicked little toe-poke from Wilkinson. His second was handsomer still, an outside burn of a run around Alesana Tuilagi to the right corner. In between, the Wasps wing cut an excellent line to wrong-foot Loki Crichton and create a five-pointer for the ever-deserving Corry, who now has a reputation as the rugby union equivalent of a footballing goal-hanger.
More importantly still, England will face Tonga in the knowledge that they have fought the good fight against one set of islanders and lived to tell the tale. Ashton, generally associated with the beauties of attacking movement rather than the dark devilry of life on the barricades, identified this as his principal reason to be cheerful.
"We gave them the chance to have a pop at us on the counter-attack, which wasn't part of the strategy, but while we were having that bad spell with our kicking game, we held up pretty well defensively," he said. In Ashton's vocabulary, "pretty well" means something rather better.
England were not big winners here on Saturday. They played in fits and starts and had the wits scared out of them for 20 minutes, during which time they found themselves clinging on for dear life when they should have been over the hills and far away. There again, they will still be live contenders come Friday, rather than dead meat.
We are talking small mercies here, but the champions are deeply gratefulfor them.
England: J Lewsey (Wasps); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle), O Barkley (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale), G Chuter (Leicester), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: P Freshwater (Perpignan) for Sheridan, 69; S Borthwick (Bath) for Shaw, 69; L Moody (Leicester) for Worsley, 75; D Hipkiss (Leicester) for Tait, 78.
Samoa: L Crichton (Worcester); D Lemi (Bristol), S Mapusua (London Irish), B Lima (Bristol), A Tuilagi (Leicester); E Fuimaono-Sapolu (Bath), J Polu (North Harbour); K Lealamanua (Dax), M Schwalger (Wellington), C Johnston (Saracens), J Tekori (Waitakere), K Thompson (Otago), D Leo (Wasps), S Sititi (NTT Docomo Kansai, capt), H Tuilagi (Perpignan). Replacements: F Palaamo (Leeds) for Lealamanua, 65; S So'oialo (Harlequins) for Polu, 71; A To'oala (Bristol) for H Tuilagi 75; J Meafou (Scopa) for Mapusua, 76; L Lui (Moata'a) for Lima, 79; J Purdie (Wellington) for Tekori, 80; Lealamanua for Johnston, 80.
Referee: A Lewis (Ireland)Reuse content