England vs Samoa preview: Ben Youngs and George Ford put on inside track

Whatever state the Samoans find themselves in, it will not be particularly easy for England’s revamped inside-back unit to quell the South Seas uprising

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The Independent Online

England’s back-line selection is as unstable now as at any point since Martin Johnson’s discredited stewardship of the national team was mercifully laid to rest following the last World Cup in New Zealand, more than three years ago.

Anyone requiring proof had only to glance at a team list published 100 miles west of Twickenham yesterday lunchtime.

Who appeared, large as life, in the Bath starting line-up for today’s Premiership match at London Irish? Why, none other than the centre Kyle Eastmond and the wing Semesa Rokoduguni, first-choice red-rosers against New Zealand just a fortnight ago and now back on the outside, looking in.

Both men have had their fitness issues, but the fact that they are considered to be in perfect shape for a breathless runaround at the Madejski Stadium suggests they could have turned out for their country against the poor, put-upon tourists of Samoa this evening.


If there is a master plan for the make-up of the national back division heading towards next year’s global gathering on home soil, it is one of the best-kept secrets in the world game. Only a truly convincing attacking performance, against opponents distracted and depressed by a meltdown in relations with their own governing body and some ugly threats made by the rugby establishment, will give England supporters a clear view of the road ahead.

Whatever state the Samoans find themselves in, it will not be particularly easy for England’s revamped inside-back unit to quell the South Seas uprising.

Ben Youngs, picked at scrum-half ahead of the discarded Danny Care, is up against one of the sport’s premium No 9s in Kahn Fotuali’i; George Ford, on his first start at outside-half, may or may not find his opposite number Tusi Pisa a handful, depending on the Super 15 man’s mood. As for Owen Farrell, redeployed at centre, the confrontation with the vigorous Johnny Leota is unlikely to be anything other than bruising.

Yet England’s organisation up front should be so far in advance of anything the Samoan pack can muster that a 20-point winning margin would not even begin to have the Twickenham crowd dancing in the car parks.

If Ford’s goal-kicking turns out to be meat and drink to England rather than mere icing on the cake, there will be a good deal of restlessness in the stands.

A number of red-rose players are in need of big performances, for a number of different reasons. Anthony Watson, the young Bath wing, must play himself into the game and build a decent yardage if he is to retain his first-choice status, while Brad Barritt, far more experienced in the ways of big-time rugby, knows that his attacking game must equal his defensive one. Luther Burrell is fit again after injury; Manu Tuilagi is not far behind him; Jonathan Joseph is playing the house down at club level. If ever a No 13 needed to make something happen with ball in hand, Barritt is that man.

Among the forwards, the back-rowers James Haskell and Ben Morgan go into the game in a vastly more positive frame of mind. They have been picked on form, above rivals who started the autumn series as stone-cold certainties for the elite side come the World Cup. Now, Tom Wood and Billy Vunipola must watch anxiously as the Wasps flanker and the Gloucester No 8 stake their claims in front of coaches who appear more than willing to be persuaded.

Of course, none of this selectorial stuff matters much in the great scheme of things. With Samoa’s international future under such threat from incompetent management back home, the fabric of the international game, already frayed, may soon be torn beyond repair.

The Twickenham ticket-holders may want to see an all-singing, all-dancing display from England but, if they have any sense, they will also be hoping the Samoans produce some rugby worthy of the occasion.