Banahan out to pack a punch as England hand him central role
The England coaching team may be developing a taste for freethinking rugby as played by Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton, the two men who did most to bamboozle the Wallabies at Twickenham last Saturday, but there are things they still love more: namely, size and aggression. Hence the selection of Matt Banahan, the Bath wing, at outside centre for this weekend's meeting with Samoa, ahead of Delon Armitage, the London Irish full-back. Any wannabe midfielder who identifies with David Haye and Manny Pacquiao rather than Brian O'Driscoll or Jeremy Guscott must have a touch of the route-one about him.
At 6ft 7ins, Banahan certainly has height on his side, and while a new conditioning programme has helped him shed some weight in recent months, he still tips the scales at 18st, which means he will bring more poundage to the centre position than he ever brought to the scrum during his formative years as a second-row forward. As for aggression... well, you pays your money. It was Brian Ashton, the former Bath and England coach, who suggested he might consider a move into the back division on the grounds that he wasn't tough enough to mix it with the hard-heads up front. There again, there is online footage of the Jersey-born Banahan performing a semi-convincing Haye-Pacquiao impersonation during a Channel Islands derby dust-up with Guernsey.
Martin Johnson, who has never had trouble distinguishing between a straight left and an uppercut, seems to agree with the Ashton verdict. "I think Matt's better off where he is," the national manager said yesterday, with a knowing smirk. "If you can get out of the second row, get out." However, he believes Banahan packs enough of a punch to cut it in the increasingly physical environment of the Test midfield. "Delon was in our thoughts, but we're looking for continuity and, by doing it this way, there will be less of a change to the way we want to play."
After winning five caps on the wing, the 23-year-old has his chance in this new position because Mike Tindall, "pretty banged up by the Australians" as Johnson put it, has been spared the trauma of an 80-minute bashing from the hard-hitting tourists from the South Seas. In many ways, Armitage would have been the more interesting selection: he offers better footwork, more straight-line speed and far greater attacking versatility than Banahan. But England are committed to a power game in midfield, and the Bath player's partnership with his club-mate Shontayne Hape, another midfielder constructed by the firm responsible for Stonehenge, promises much in the bish-bosh department.
"Tana Umaga started out on the wing, then moved into midfield," said Banahan, referring to one of the great All Black backs of recent vintage. Happily, the man from St Brelade did not over-egg the coincidence by making any serious comparison between himself and that fearsome competitor from Lower Hutt. He talked about the boxing fraternity instead, singling out Haye and Pacquiao as purveyors of the controlled aggression that underpins success in contact sports.
"I've watched Pacquiao's fights, and I watched Haye at the weekend," he continued. "When they come into the ring they're very relaxed, but when the bell goes they're totally different. That's the key: you need that ability to switch off, while knowing what it is you have to do." As the islanders are likely to play the ferocious Seilala Mapusua in midfield, knowing what needs to be done and actually doing it could be two very different things. "Two Samoan hand-offs will be more than we saw from Audley Harrison at the weekend," admitted Banahan.
The other changes to the starting line-up – David Wilson of Bath for Dan Cole at tight-head prop, James Haskell of Stade Français for Tom Croft on the blind-side flank and Hendre Fourie of Leeds for the battered captain Lewis Moody in the breakaway position – were predictable enough: Wilson has been champing at the bit all autumn, Haskell is well suited to the particular demands of a contest with the Samoans and Fourie's muscular expertise at the breakdown will be a valuable asset.
As for the leadership duties, they fall to the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, who may well find himself performing the role at next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
Can England possibly go into a game against a side they have always beaten with the same razor edge that marked their exceptional performance against the Wallabies?
"That's the trick, isn't it?" Johnson said. "We're looking for consistency, because that is what defines the top sides. Samoa will be very confrontational and very direct: against Ireland in Dublin last week, they probably won the exchanges at the breakdown and could have gone on to win the game. We can't afford to kid ourselves. They'll be good, and we must give them our full attention."
Tickets for Saturday's Investec international are available from £35 for adults and £10 for under 16s via www.rfu.com/tickets
How England line up
Team to face Samoa at Twickenham on Saturday:
B Foden; C Ashton (both Northampton), M Banahan, S Hape (both Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood, B Youngs (both Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), T Palmer, J Haskell (both Stade Français), H Fourie (Leeds), N Easter (Harlequins, capt).
Replacements S Thompson (Leeds), D Cole (Leicester), D Attwood (Gloucester), T Croft (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale), D Armitage (London Irish).
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