England dragged back to earth through getting stars in their eyes
England 26 Samoa 13: Failure to match Samoa in the rucks nearly costs Johnson's side dear in fortunate win
Monday 22 November 2010
There are two reasons why the New Zealanders have never taken the trouble to roll out of bed and play a Test match in Samoa: they believe they're too good to bother, and they're worried about returning home with half a team, having seen the doting mothers of All Black islanders reclaim their long-lost children at the airport. England have their reasons, too. For one thing, there is no money to be made in travelling to the South Seas. For another, there would be a serious possibility of defeat.
Perhaps even a likelihood. Having finished within 10 points of Ireland in Dublin the previous week, the tourists pitched up at Twickenham to demonstrate for the umpteenth time that man for man – use of the time-honoured sporting phrase "pound for pound" would be unfortunate, given the pittance some of these people earn from the game – they can stand tall against the strongest, wealthiest nations in world rugby and rattle a few cages. Or rather, ribcages. Some of Seilala Mapusua's defensive work on Saturday beggared belief.
On home soil in Apia, in off-the-scale temperatures and debilitating humidity, they would be a terrible handful for all but the most proficient teams in the world game – and as this contest showed to the complete satisfaction of everyone with a grasp of rugby reality, England are not to be listed under that heading. They may have just flicked an entire National Grid of switches to beat the Wallabies in a razzle-dazzle style to which the red-rose congregation had grown wholly unaccustomed, but here, against opponents who had no intention of participating in a run-around and were hell-bent on atomising people rather than tackling them, they found themselves fumbling around in the dark once more.
If they scored two tries from distance, there were large slices of good fortune about both of them. The first, completed by Matt Banahan on a less than exhilarating debut as a Test centre, featured forward passes from both Shontayne Hape and Chris Ashton – judging by events elsewhere over the weekend, a clear majority of international referees are either boss-eyed or blind – while the second was a bog-standard interception job. More than anything, their performance was characterised by a try they failed to score.
Midway through the final quarter, England reclaimed possession close to their own line after a clean break from the outstanding Samoan half-back Kahn Fotuali'i. In similarly unpromising circumstances against the Wallabies, the tight forward Courtney Lawes threw a cucumber-cool pass to Ashton, freeing him on that astonishing 95-metre glory dash. This time, the tight forward Steve Thompson panicked, wellied the ball towards touch and ended up slicing it over his own shoulder. If Ashton, free on his wing, was incandescent, he cannot have been wholly surprised. England have days like the one against Australia twice in a blue moon, not twice a week.
But for a clear superiority at the set-piece and Toby Flood's goal-kicking, which was of an entirely different order to that of the otherwise excellent Samoan full-back Paul Williams, the home side would have been in all manner of strife late in the game. A driving maul took the islanders within inches of a try that would have brought them to within a point with 11 minutes left, and after handing England a soft try on 76 minutes – Fotuali'i deserved better than to see his long pass picked off by Banahan and touched down by Tom Croft – they redoubled their efforts up front and were rewarded with a score for Fautua Otto in the right corner.
By that time, even the home side's scrummaging edge had been blunted; indeed, the Samoans dominated the final engagements, and it was this failing that drove Martin Johnson, the red-rose manager, to distraction. "I don't know what happened in those late scrums, but I'll find out," he muttered, darkly. "We can't be doing that. It's not what we're about."
And the rest of it? "We weren't as cohesive as against Australia, but I said all week that the Samoans were dangerous, that they were capable of winning the game. The people who were talking about us winning in style don't appreciate what we're dealing with at this level. Test rugby is bloody competitive and bloody tough. How many times do teams like Samoa have to do what they do before people understand?"
Unhappily for Johnson, this multitude of misunderstanders included many of his own players. England tried to play the way they did against the Wallabies without earning the right to do so, without laying the correct foundations, without adapting their game to suit the occasion. Unlike the Australians, the Samoans attacked the rucks in numbers in an attempt to slow the delivery of possession and stop their hosts quickening the tempo. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of George Stowers, Ofisa Treviranus and the strikingly athletic Manaia Salavea, they succeeded all too often.
Back in the day, when Johnson was performing his dastardly deeds in the depths of the England engine room, the penny would have dropped immediately: together with the Phil Vickerys, Richard Hills and Neil Backs of this world, the captain would have opted for the "up the guts" approach, using one ball-carrier off the side of the ruck to suck in the Samoan back-rowers.
Did this simple tactic occur to the 2010 vintage? Apparently not. "You have to carry hard at this level, and we didn't do enough of it," Johnson acknowledged.
Strange to relate, the man who did more things right, more often than anyone, was the naturalised South African on the open-side flank, Hendre Fourie. Highly motivated on his first start at Test level, the Leeds forward brought in some route-one thinking while most of his colleagues were in round-the-houses mode, and justified his promotion ahead of the younger, swankier breakaways currently making their way in the Premiership.
There was a ruggedness to Fourie's work that was almost – dare we say it? – Springbokish. If he gets a run against his countrymen next weekend, there could be real fun and games. "I hear the South Africans lost in Scotland," he said on his way to the bar for a pint of proper English beer, like they don't serve in Burgersdorp. "A wounded Springbok is a dangerous beast, but a red rose on the rise ..."
By rugger-bugger standards, it was almost poetic. Fourie could become the first player to win a man-of-the- match award and the T S Eliot Prize on the same afternoon.
The glory of iambic pentameter is the last thing on Johnson's mind as he prepares for a meeting with the world champions, and the manager does not need telling that a soft-centred, airy-fairy performance next Saturday will undo whatever has been achieved this autumn. Fourie cannot hope to start, for the very good reason that his rival for the No 7 shirt happens to be Lewis Moody, the captain. But if England have any sense, they will ensure he is with them in spirit, if not in body.
Scorers: England: Tries Banahan, Croft; Conversions Flood 2; Penalties Flood 4. Samoa: Tries P Williams, Otto; Penalty P Williams.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton; D Armitage, London Irish, 80), M Banahan (Bath), S Hape (Bath; C Hodgson, Sale, 80), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester; D Care, Harlequins, 71); A Sheridan (Sale), D Hartley (Northampton; S Thompson, Leeds, 57); D Wilson (Bath; D Cole, Leicester, 57), C Lawes (Northampton; D Attwood, Gloucester, 71), T Palmer (Stade Francais), J Haskell (Stade Francais; T Croft, Leicester, 71), H Fourie (Leeds), N Easter (Harlequins, capt).
Samoa: P Williams (Sale); D Lemi (Wasps; F Otto, SCOPA, 61), G Pisi (Taranaki; G Williams, Clermont Auvergne, 80), S Mapusua (London Irish), A Tuilagi (Leicester); T Lavea (Clermont Auvergne; J Poluleuligaga, Exeter, 69 ), K Fotuali'i (Hawke's Bay); S Taulafo (Wasps; C Johnston, Toulouse, 15-22), M Schwalger (Taranaki, capt; T Paulo, Clermont Auvergne, 48), A Perenise (Hawke's Bay; C Johnston, Toulouse, 71), F Levi (Newcastle), K Thompson (Southland; J Tekori, Castres, h-t), O Treviranus (Malie Sharks; A Aiono, Marist St Joseph's, 67), M Salavea (Narbonne), G Stowers (London Irish) .
Referee: P Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
The new combinations: big future or past tense?
Shontayne Hape turned in his best international performance – "It just makes you laugh, waiting for other people to find out how good he is," said Martin Johnson – but his partnership with fellow Bath back Matt Banahan hardly set the Thames on fire. A Carling-Guscott link for the modern age? Not quite.
The front row
Andrew Sheridan managed a couple of heffalump charges and scrummaged strongly, even though Cencus Johnston "got across" him late on. Dylan Hartley was quieter than usual – one or two heavy hits took their toll – while David Wilson, excellent at the set-piece, might have carried the ball more productively.
The back row
Leeds newcomer Hendre Fourie was the pick of the trio, although Nick Easter's off-loading skills suggested he might have been a better choice than Banahan as a creative midfielder. James Haskell started strongly, but England lose too much at the line-out to consider taking on the Springboks without Tom Croft.
England's next fixture
Saturday; v South Africa
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