Brian Smith: England's troubles pale in significance compared with the Samoan experience

COACH'S VIEW: For the Samoans to feel as aggrieved as they do about the situation is a serious thing

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The Independent Online

England need all the support they can get at Twickenham tonight: after five defeats on the bounce, albeit against the two best teams in world rugby, the last thing they need is the home supporters turning on them in the way some media outlets have been doing since last weekend’s narrow loss to the Springboks. But let’s get things in perspective here. The people most in need of backing right now are the Samoans, because their problems are on a completely different scale.

I want to see England produce a confident, comprehensive performance under lights this evening. I also want to see Samoa bring something to the party. It won’t be easy for them after the two or three weeks they’ve just endured, but they are among the proudest people in the whole of rugby and while I don’t expect them to threaten an upset – they are too distracted and too disjointed for that – it wouldn’t surprise me if they put on a show for a while. And if that turns out to be the case, good on them.

At London Irish, we have strong Samoan connections stretching right back to the days when Stephen Bachop was running things at outside-half, and when you think of the contributions made by Sailosi Tagicakibau, Seilala Mapusua and the rest, it’s difficult to overestimate their impact on the life of the club. When I hear Dan Leo, our second row, speaking so eloquently about the issues of governance and financial transparency affecting the current national side, it leaves me feeling just a little fired up.

 

In this age of social media campaigning, I can see the Samoan situation becoming a cause célèbre for rugby followers everywhere. Quite right too. Now that the All Blacks, who benefit as much as anyone from players with an islands background, are showing some solidarity, the sense of common purpose among professional coaches and players is likely to grow. You won’t find better people anywhere than Dan and his countryman Ofisa Treviranus, who also plays his club rugby with us. For them to feel as aggrieved as they do about the way they’re being treated is a serious thing, and the International Rugby Board needs to respond urgently – and not by kicking the issue into the long grass, either.

Like everyone else. I’ll be interested to see if the new 10-12 link between George Ford and Owen Farrell kick-starts England’s attacking game. Is it a fudge, designed to spare the coaches the discomfort of dropping Farrell from the starting line-up after a couple of below-par performances, or is it one of those lightbulb moments – a 2014 version of the Jonny Wilkinson-Mike Catt, two ball-player arrangement that dug the national team out of a hole or two in the past? Farrell and Ford have some history together in age-group rugby, so it’s probably worth seeing if there’s something to pursue at Test level. And if you’re going to try it, what better match than this one?

What I don’t quite understand is the change of tone in the media since the game against South Africa – all the talk of crisis and impending doom. A narrow squeak against the Boks in a game where the try count was squared three apiece? That’s hardly a calamity in my book, even though England did not offer a great deal with ball in hand and there wasn’t much to write home about in the kicking department.  Am I imagining it, or has the mood  changed since the announcement of those long contract extensions for the coaches?

I have to say that I’ve been surprised by some of the coverage. The world rankings are a pretty accurate reflection of where teams are at, so I find it difficult to believe that knowledgeable rugby people really thought England were in a prime position to turn over the Boks, let alone the All Blacks. Level-headed folk understand the truth of it: right now, England are a good side, capable of giving the very best teams a hurry-up. They are also just a notch off those teams. But with power to add ahead of the World Cup, I can see them closing in on them.

Talking of the All Blacks, I think their excellent attacking shape and their ability to throw 200 passes, most of them deadly accurate and perfectly timed, will prove too much for Wales today. They’re an upgrade on the Wallabies, who won in Cardiff a fortnight ago, so I don’t see an upset coming. The Ireland-Australia game in Dublin is tougher to call, but if the Wallabies get it right on the gain line, they have the firepower outside to win... and set up a real fun-and-games contest at Twickenham next week.

 

Brian Smith is director of rugby at London Irish and a former England attack coach.  His fee for this article will be donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

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