Armitage primed to tackle Pacific Islands muscle
London Irish full-back well aware of challenge England will face this weekend
Underpaid, under-prepared and over here, the Pacific Islands never start a game of rugby as anything other than underdogs. Yet when they take the field at Twickenham this weekend for their groundbreaking meeting with England, they will be armed with one of the most destructive back divisions ever seen in this part of the world – or any other part of the world, come to that. And who knows most about them? Step forward Delon Armitage, the red-rose army's latest full-back, who is as nervous as hell for the very best of reasons.
Armitage will be facing two of his London Irish colleagues in Seilala Mapusua, a barrel of a centre whose form this season has verged on the epic, and Sailosi Tagicakibau, a brilliant broken-field runner who starts on the wing. "I've had text messages from both of them saying 'you don't want to play against us'," the 24-year-old new cap commented. "I see at first hand the things they're capable of, week after week. They're awesome players, both of them. They could make this a very tough game for England."
As if the two Samoans were not enough for Martin Johnson's freshly-minted team to be going on with, the tourists also plan to inflict Kameli Ratuvou, Vilimoni Delasau and Seru Rabeni on their hosts. All three played for Fiji at the last World Cup and were at the heart of that island's spectacular progress at the expense of Wales.
Once they reached the quarter-finals, they put the wind up the Springboks for good measure. If the eventual champions eventually prevailed in a spellbinding tie in Marseilles, it was only because their wing, J P Pietersen, pulled off the tackle of the tournament to deny the Fijians a game-changing try.
Elsewhere in their selection, the islanders have a couple of front-row forwards – the Tongan hooker Aleki Lutui and the Samoan prop Census Johnston – who have already made a serious dent on this current Premiership season, plus two members of Tonga's wonderful World Cup back row in Nili Latu, the open-side flanker, and Finau Maka, the No 8 (the third member of that tasty little trio, Hale T-Pole, is on the bench). They may not win on Saturday, but they will surely take a few with them in defeat.
Matches against the islanders are among the most physically challenging the union game has to offer, which is where Armitage comes in. Not since JPR Williams ran 50 metres to join a mass dust-up between the Lions and the Springboks in 1974 has a full-back been so prepared to dish it out. As Toby Booth, the London Irish coach, said a few days ago: "Delon sometimes plays as though the world is against him. By that I mean if he loses a collision, he takes it personally. He regards it as his fault because he is such a ferocious competitor. It's a question of him controlling the abrasive bit."
"I've had to rein myself in," Armitage admitted. "That side of my game was one of the reasons I wasn't getting into the squads I thought I should be getting into. I was even dropped from my own club team because of it. In the end, I took a big look in the mirror. I asked myself if I wanted to carry on as I was, or make a real effort to play at the top level. It was an easy decision."
At the start of the season, Armitage was well off-radar in terms of England selection. Indeed, he did not make either of the squads named by Johnson in early July, which effectively left him outside the top 64 players in the country. Mathew Tait of Sale had been earmarked for the Test full-back position, and with Josh Lewsey also in the elite squad, there seemed little prospect of advancement.
Even when Lewsey's form dipped in the early stages of the Premiership campaign, Nick Abendanon of Bath, Mike Brown of Harlequins and Olly Morgan of Gloucester were generally thought to be ahead of him in the pecking order – not least because he was spending increasing amounts of time at outside centre.
Yet when Johnson summoned him last week as cover for the ailing Tait, his contribution in training immediately set the coaching team thinking.
"It's a dream," he said after being confirmed in the starting line-up. "But as my father keeps telling me, hanging onto this shirt and making it mine will be the hardest thing I'll ever do – far harder than getting here in the first place. As I want to make it mine, I know what I have to do and I'm prepared to give it everything." If that means standing up to the most punishing set of runners around, so be it.
Polynesian punch: Pacific Islands team
Kameli Ratuvou (Saracens and Fiji)
Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish and Samoa)
Seru Rabeni (Leicester and Fiji)
Seilala Mapusua (London Irish and Samoa)
Vilimoni Delasau (Montauban and Fiji)
Pierre Hola (Kobelca and Tonga) Mosese Rauluni (Saracens and Fiji)
Justin Va'a (Glasgow and Samoa)
Aleki Lutui (Worcester and Tonga) Census Johnston (Saracens and Samoa)
Filipo Levi (Ricoh and Samoa)
Kele Leawere (Hino Motors and Fiji) Semisi Naevo (NEC and Fiji)
Nili Latu (NEC and Tonga)
Finau Maka (Toulouse and Tonga)
Sunia Koto (London Welsh and Fiji)
Kisi Pulu (Perpignan and Tonga)
Hale T Pole (Suntory and Tonga) George Stowers (World Kobe and Samoa)
Sililo Martens (Scarlets and Tonga) Seremaia Bai (Clermont Auvergne and Fiji)
Epi Taione (Harlequins and Tonga).
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