Hard-hitting Samoa plan to unsettle England
Saturday 25 October 2003
Once every four years, they move the mountain. Cardiff Arms Park in 1991, Ellis Park in Johannesburg in '95, the Millennium Stadium in '99 - these were the scenes of great Samoan uprisings, mighty declarations of rugby independence through which the most naturally talented and consistently successful of the Pacific Islands teams registered their determination to stand tall on the World Cup stage. And tomorrow? "To the best of my knowledge," John Boe, their coach, said, "we have never confronted opponents this organised, this prepared, this powerful. It is the biggest challenge of all."
Boe was discussing England - not Australia nor South Africa, nor even his native New Zealand, but dear old Blighty. Times have changed in this sport, and the extent of that change explains why everyone, from the most one-eyed Wallaby pundit to the most cerebral of French oval-ball philosophers, is bleating and whingeing about the various tactics and strategies currently employed by the tournament favourites. Boe is anything but a whinger, happily. He takes England at face value, acknowledges the scale of their expertise and, with a smile on his face, promises them what he describes as "a proper game".
England could do with just that if they are to push hard in the final fortnight of this competition. Next week, they play Uruguay - a mismatch of depressing proportions; in a fortnight, they will take on Italy or Wales in the quarter-finals, and with the best will in the world, it is difficult to imagine them breaking into a cold sweat either way. While their line-out is nothing short of superb, they have a point to prove at the scrummage and an issue or two at the breakdown. If the Samoans front up here, they will do the European champions a favour.
The islanders are at full strength. They pose a threat on the wings, where Lome Fa'atau and Sailosi Tagicakibau have already impressed, and they are fully capable of inflicting some all-over body assaults in midfield, through the supremely intense Terry Fanolua and the "chiropractor" himself, Brian Lima, who starts his 15th consecutive World Cup match for his country - a record that is unlikely to be surpassed this side of eternity. The back row is special, too. Between them, Semo Sititi and the astonishing Maurie Fa'asavalu are capable of emulating the two Springboks, Joe van Niekerk and Juan Smith, who caused England such unmitigated grief a week ago.
"We're looking to cause England damage in defence and cause them concern in attack," Boe said with refreshing frankness. "It won't be easy. England have the best defensive screen in the world and a kicker in Jonny Wilkinson who gets depressed when he drops down to a strike-rate of 99 per cent. But while we've tried to identify weaknesses in what they do and attempted to come up with ways of exploiting those weaknesses, we're largely concerned with playing our own game in our traditional fashion."
Plenty of work for the physios, then? Boe frowned for the first time in almost three weeks. "Look, the Samoan players like to hit hard, and they sometimes hit so hard that opponents bounce off them before they can complete the tackle with their arms," he said. "There may have been an issue about illegal tackling years ago, but these people are among the most disciplined I've ever had the privilege to work alongside. They go to church, they cherish their families and their people, and they play with pride. If they come off the field having been themselves and been the best they can be, I'll be satisfied."
His opposite number will not be satisfied with anything less than a 40-point victory, for the English tight forwards should restrict the Samoans to a bare minimum of possession. Julian White, the specialist scrummager from the West Country, will be operating at fever pitch, for he sees a route into Clive Woodward's first-choice team. Jason Leonard should know far too much for Jeremy Tomuli - with 100-plus caps in his kitbag, the venerable Harlequin should know too much for everyone - while the boilerhouse combination of Martin Johnson and Ben Kay is far beyond anything the islanders can bring to the party.
In a perfect world, the Samoans would be just like England. They would have the free pick of their finest talent, they would be handsomely rewarded for their brilliance, they would have 20 training get-togethers a year and 10 Tests per season. And in the real world? Half of their élite players are busy playing provincial rugby across the Tasman Sea, their impoverished national union has no urgent need of an accountant and those die-hards who have made themselves available for this tournament spend most of their time scattered across the globe.
Of tomorrow's starting combination, six play in New Zealand, three in England, two in Japan, two in Scotland and one in France. Only Fa'asavalu spends his weekends running around the pitches of his native island, and he is looking to leave the capital, Apia, as soon as he lays hands on a professional contract. Fa'asavalu is 23 and has another two World Cups left in him. Can the same be said for Samoa?
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