When Chris Robshaw and his colleagues joined the Samoans in a muddied and bloodied prayer circle at the end of the game on Saturday, the two teams were asking the Almighty for very different things.
The men from the South Seas, marginalised and mistreated by the rugby establishment, barely knew where to start with their wish list, but settled for something under the general heading “deliverance from evil”. England’s plea was both more modest and more specific: all they want is a victory over the Wallabies.
Right now, nothing is more important to them than this week’s meeting with Australia, who have lost in France and Ireland in the space of a few days and are just about out on their feet, yet have comfortably enough wit and imagination to end their year on a high by winning at Twickenham.
England 28 Samoa 9 player ratings
England 28 Samoa 9 player ratings
1/16 Mike Brown - 6
Enjoyed scoring his try, unusually a couple of high balls went astray and knocked on during a promising first-half attack. Did not reach the high standard achieved a week earlier against the Springboks.
2/16 Anthony Watson - 6
Far more involved than a week earlier and contributed significantly to Brown's try. A potent threat that England need to use more but still learning the game at elite level
3/16 Brad Barritt - 5
A midfield rock who must still be uncertain what is going on around him. Makes his tackles, attacking ploys limited - grub kicks did not come off - but needs a consistent partner
4/16 Owen farrell - 5
Threw himself into breakdowns with usual gusto but still limited coherence in the midfield attack. Important role in first England try but another game - against better opposition - needed to validate his place
5/16 Jonny May - 7
After nine-minute rest for a blood injury, returned to run straight and true for his first-half try. Second try a walk-in but showed there's no substitute for raw pace and consolidated place
6/16 George Ford - 7
Did well on first start, steadied the first-half ship, kicked goals when it mattered and showed himself an attacking threat with front-foot ball. Made his tackles too for a good evening's work
7/16 Ben Youngs - 5
Undemonstrative return to the starting jersey, oiling the works for others. Greater accuracy with his kicking needed, England are still not testing opponents under the high ball enough
8/16 Joe Marler - 6
Part of a sound scrum which squeezed out two early penalties. Samoa never found a way round this set-piece boulder and Marler showed his customary zeal in loose play, as ball-handler and tackler
9/16 Rob Webber - 6
Another hard-working game, good set-piece work and justified his selection ahead of Dylan Hartley. Did not get his hands on the ball as much as he does at Bath but deserves another opportunity
10/16 David Wilson - 7
Did all of the above and also showed flare as a defender by covering back and stifling a Samoa attack down the left flank. He and Marler left early to give game time to replacements
11/16 Dave Attwood - 6
Another perfect lineout display by England, in which Attwood played full part. Greater first-half fluidity would have given him more chances in loose play and missed a try at the end by knocking on
12/16 Courtney Lawes - 6
Equal contribution to Attwood at lineout time and ran the ball effectively. Can be pleased with his showing after taking that heavy knock against New Zealand first time out
13/16 James Haskell - 6
Typically industrious showing from a player bursting to find a regular starting place. Over-eagerness accounted for concession of penalties but covered the ground well and aggressive in the tackle
14/16 Chris Robshaw - 7
Named man of the match for doing everything he does every week. Important lineout presence and good hands in May's second try, bustled around the field to great effect and made over 20 tackles
15/16 Ben Morgan
Would have liked to make a greater impact. England need more potent running from their big men and though Morgan lifted his game after the break, he became a bit lost as the game broke up
England used all their bench, of whom George Kruis made the greatest impact. The Saracens lock stole one lineout, popped up in midfield more than once and has made a distinct impression. Marland Yarde made one flaring run as May's first-half replacement and returned eager for more but the game had broken up by the time the rest of the bench appeared.
The tourists can pick two back divisions better than the one England are likely to select, so if they achieve anything resembling parity up front, they will fancy their chances of landing a painful pre-World Cup blow on their pool-stage rivals.
Which is where George Ford comes in. England’s new outside-half, all 5ft 9in and 13st of him, showed enough playmaking instinct and ingenuity in shaping a 28-9 victory over the Samoans to book himself a second, significantly more demanding start in the No 10 shirt.
Playing behind a pack who established complete control at scrum, line-out and maul, he mixed up his game intelligently, drawing on the full range of his Stuart Barnes-type skill set.
He even managed to keep body and soul together when Johnny Leota, the hang-’em-high Samoan centre, banjaxed him with an eye-wateringly hard tackle early in the second half. Ford was “smoked”, “totalled”, and “ended” – rugby players have their own vocabulary for this kind of thing – and while he was back on his feet soon enough, he was not obviously in a condition to assess the questionable legitimacy of the yellow card shown to his assailant. It may well be that he did not even notice Leota’s departure, judging by the glazed look in his eyes. All we know for sure is that he stayed on, thereby proving himself to be tougher than he looks.
Not that his much discussed link with the redeployed Owen Farrell was an unqualified success: those happy souls old enough to recall the rugby alchemy of Mark Ella and Michael Lynagh at 10 and 12 in the great Wallabies side of 1984 were never in danger of mistaking one unit for the other.
While there will be uproar if Ford is demoted to the bench for the arrival of these latest Australians, there is unlikely to be the same bandwagon in support of Farrell.
True, he and his fellow northerner and one-time schoolmate worked the oracle with a lovely blind-pass loop move to create an early try for Jonny May. But Farrell offers little in the way of a running threat and while the stand he took in defence was characteristically bold and forthright, his timing with ball in hand was a long way short of spot on.
Billy Twelvetrees, more at home in the inside centre role, replaced him for the last 15 minutes or so and caught the eye with a fine try-saving cover tackle on Alapati Leiua.
At least Ford was up front in acknowledging the curate’s egg nature of the all-round performance.
“We should have been smarter in the first half rather than get carried away with our offloads and allow things to become as scrappy as they did,” conceded the youngster. “But things were said at the interval and we fixed it.
“What we can’t afford to do is make those mistakes against the Wallabies, because they’re brilliant when the game becomes unstructured.”
If there is a decision to be made at No 12 – it would be unlike Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, to ditch Farrell, a player he holds in the highest esteem, after one performance in a fresh role, but Twelvetrees made at least a partial case for promotion – the outside backs are nailed on.
May, lightning quick, scored a second try to complete the scoring midway through the third quarter, while Anthony Watson was a standout figure on the right wing, looking for all the world like a player for the long term.
It was Watson’s predatory step and delivery off a sharp pass from Ford that paved the way for Mike Brown’s try on 45 minutes, which gave England a 23-6 lead and put them out of sight of a passionately committed but organisationally fragile band of Pacific islanders.
While Lancaster was impressed by that flash of quality, he was even more delighted by the youngster’s all-round contribution. “A big step forward,” the coach said.
Brown cannot have been wholly happy with his performance – a butter-fingered failure to capitalise on Ford’s lovely little show-and-go routine when the contest was still “live” was eerily similar to his spilling of Kyle Eastmond’s inch-perfect pass against the All Blacks a fortnight previously – but there was no denying the depth of the Harlequins full-back’s competitive spirit.
In the absence of a No 15 remotely as good as the Wallaby maestro Israel Folau, the red-rose coaches can only hope that attitude trumps athleticism when the Aussies come to town.
Talking of attitude, it is barely possible to overestimate the courage of the Samoans in making a game of it after weeks of internal upheaval.
Their back row alone – Maurie Fa’asavalu, Jack Lam, Ofisa Treviranus – were off the scale in their work rate; their scrum-half, Kahn Fotuali’i, brought the best of himself to the cause.
When the England players joined them in their circle, it was a statement of solidarity with a gifted group of players who, instead of being given the professional support network they crave, are routinely told to mind their own business and threatened with the torments of sporting hell if they fail to do so. The Samoan situation continues to stain rugby’s soul.Reuse content