England trusting pack instinct to overwhelm spirit of Samoa

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The Independent Online

Away with the abacus, lose the logarithms, consign the calculator to the nearest cupboard. The scenario at Stade de la Beaujoire this afternoon could not possibly be simpler, for if England lose to Samoa for the first time in five matches stretching back a dozen years, they will almost certainly be out of this tournament by 9pm next Wednesday – a development that would see Brian Ashton's head dressed up as a root vegetable by Fleet Street's finest and the players sneaking back into Heathrow in blond wigs and women's clothing.

The Pacific islanders are more exposed still. Defeat here in Brittany would bring an immediate end to their World Cup campaign and fix them in the minds of their rugby-driven people as the least successful Samoan team ever to compete at a global gathering – a prospect far too painful to contemplate, as the coach, Michael Jones, and the captain, Semo Sititi, have made abundantly clear over the last few days.

Beaten by their fellow Polynesians, the Tongans, in Montpellier last weekend, they are hurting badly. "This game is all that is left to us," said Sititi, who rather expected to have at least five points in the bag by this stage, not one.

England have four points, but in reality, they are neck and neck with the Samoans. Should Sititi's men do to the reigning champions what they have twice done to Wales in World Cup fixtures, they would play the United States in St-Etienne next Wednesday needing a bonus-point victory to railroad Ashton and company out of the competition. Does anyone doubt, even for a second, that they would record such a victory? The England coach, who knows a thing or two about this sport, would stake his last and favourite shirt on them doing it. Only by winning today can the holders hope to progress to the knock-out stage.

Under normal circumstances, they would answer the call. Their set-piece work alone would virtually guarantee success. But these particular circumstances are far from normal. England are in a mess, and they know it. Told that the Samoans were describing the performance against Tonga as their worst in a World Cup fixture, Ashton's response was open, honest and immediate. "We're both in the same boat," he said, "because our performance against South Africa last Friday night was probably the worst ever turned in by an England team."

Ashton had been much less forthcoming on this subject previously, insisting that while the misfire against the Springboks in St-Denis had been profoundly disappointing, it had at least been better than the leaden-footed, spectacularly unimaginative effort against the United States in Lens. Yesterday, the coach changed his tune, possibly as a means of shaming his charges into the kind of effort that will save face and allow the team one shot, however distant, at the Wallabies in the last eight.

"A win is an absolute must, but so too is a better, more balanced performance," he said, as if to suggest that with Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley united in the principal midfield decision-making positions, England might suddenly start tripping the light fantastic. But the possibility of the champions playing with some adventure, some derring-do, receded when he added: "We've looked very hard at what we offer as a team, and at what the Samoans offer, and we've planned accordingly. I'm confident we will go in with some clarity of mind in respect of doing the things that will allow us to spend most of the game on the front foot."

In other words, the England pack will grab the islanders by the short and curlies and twist hard, trusting in the age-old rugby adage that when you take hold of opponents by the balls, their hearts and minds will surely follow.

The problem? At the last World Cup, which England were good enough to win, it took the likes of Wilkinson more than an hour to find a way of quelling the most thrilling of Samoan uprisings. That side, also led by the peerless Sititi, boasted a small handful of players with experience of top-level club rugby in Europe but were hardly the most practised of professional outfits. This current team have far more about it in terms of know-how; indeed, all five backs and one of the half-backs earn their living in the Premiership. The exception, the scrum-half Junior Polu, plays in New Zealand for the North Harbour province. North Harbour are no mugs, and neither is Polu.

As the tournament hosts found to their cost on the opening night, when they lost to Argentina, familiarity breeds contempt. Great swathes of the Puma team were drawn from the Tricolores' domestic Top 14 competition and during the course of a compelling 80 minutes, they drew on an intimate knowledge of their opponents' methods, their strengths and their frailties. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to presume the same could not happen this afternoon.

All things being equal, England will win – not comfortably, perhaps, but with points to spare. But if the Samoans start anything like as brilliantly as they did in Melbourne four years ago, we will have a genuine contest on our hands. Certainly, there is a whiff of evil about it from the champions' perspective.

Pool A

Results: 8 Sept: England 28 United States 10; 9 Sept: South Africa 59 Samoa 7; 12 Sept: United States 15Tonga 25; 14 Sept: England 0 South Africa 36; 16 Sept: Samoa 15 Tonga 19.

Remaining fixtures: Today: South Africa v Tonga (1.0) (Lens); England v Samoa (3.0) (Nantes); 26 Sept: Samoa v United States (7.0) (St-Etienne); 28 Sept: England v Tonga (8.0) (Parc des Princes, Paris); 30 Sept: South Africa v United States (7.0) (Montpellier).

Today's key confrontations

* JONNY WILKINSON v ELIOTA FUIMAONO-SAPOLU

Brian Ashton worked with the double-barrelled Samoan at Bath in 2006, and describes him as "a direct runner with good footwork and intelligent distribution who probably won't kick the ball". Wilkinson can expect to be tested physically, with his powerful opponent seeking to expose any lingering after-effects of the Newcastle outside-half's most recent injury hassles. If there is a weakness to be exposed, Fuimaono-Sapolu will find it.

* SIMON SHAW v JOE TEKORI

Tekori has been the most impressive of the Samoan tight forwards; indeed, he might have inspired his country to great heights against the Springboks but for the scandalous refereeing decision that denied him a try shortly after the interval. Shaw is much the taller man, however, and he should win the line-out contest hands down. England's forwards have been far too quiet in this tournament. If they go mute again today, they will lose.

* NICK EASTER v HENRY TUILAGI

There are plenty of short-straw awards available to the favourites: Olly Barkley really won't want to see too much of Brian Lima; ditto Paul Sackey, who has Alesana Tuilagi on his case. But Easter has the most thankless task, for Henry Tuilagi is in the form of his life. The No 8 scattered the sundry Springboks to the four winds 13 days ago, and if he plays with the same ferocity here, watch out world.

Teams at Stade de la Beaujoire

England

15 J Lewsey (Wasps)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 M Tait (Newcastle)

12 O Barkley (Bath)

11 M Cueto (Sale)

10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)

9 A Gomarsall (Harlequins)

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: 16 M Regan (Bristol); 17 P Freshwater (Perpignan); 18 S Borthwick (Bath); 19 L Moody (Leicester); 20 P Richards (London Irish); 21 A Farrell (Saracens); 22 D Hipkiss (Leicester).

Samoa

15 L Crichton (Worcester)

14 D Lemi (Bristol)

13 S Mapusua (London Irish)

12 B Lima (Bristol)

11 A Tuilagi (Leicester)

10 E Fuimaono-Sapolu (Bath)

9 J Polu (North Harbour)

1 K Lealamanua (Dax)

2 M Schwalger (Wellington)

3 C Johnston (Saracens)

4 J Tekori (Waitakere)

5 K Thompson (Otago)

6 D Leo (Wasps)

7 S Sititi (NTT Docomo Kansai)

8 H Tuilagi (Perpignan)

Replacements: 16 T Fuga (Harlequins); 17 F Palaamo (Leeds); 18 J Purdie (Wellington); 19 A To'oala (Bristol); 20 S So'oialo (Harlequins); 21 J Meafou (Scopa); 22 L Lui (Moata'a).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland)

Kick-off: 3.0pm (ITV 1)

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