Martin Johnson: So we've won a game. Let's calm down
There is not much point in a team staging the rugby equivalent of a Lord Mayor's Show, as England did in beating the Wallabies at Twickenham last weekend, if they fail to avoid the thing that traditionally comes after it.
Martin Johnson knows this only too well, and he went the extra mile yesterday in stressing that it takes more than a single good performance – even an unusually good one, as the display against Australia undoubtedly was – to transform a side from barely relevant also-rans into genuine World Cup contenders.
"So we've won a game," the manager said yesterday. "Let's calm down." Asked whether he was addressing these words to his players, to the spectators or to the media, he indicated that all three might usefully take them on board. "It's such a volatile world at the moment," he continued. "Perceptions don't change on a weekly basis any more, but on a daily basis. We know where we want to go, but it's not an easy route and we're not there yet. There will be more bumps in the road, for individual players and for the team as a whole."
On their day, Samoa have the ability to make things bumpier than an Olympic snowboarding course. Unfortunately for the islanders, they rarely enjoy such days against England, who invariably prove too proficient at the scrum, too organised at the line-out and too disciplined at the tackle area to stumble into the South Seas mantrap that has snapped shut on the likes of Wales so often in the past. If the new red-rose captain, Nick Easter, and his forwards exert their usual control at close quarters this afternoon, a 25-point home victory will be on the cards.
Not that Johnson is placing all his eggs in the set-piece basket. "These Samoan guys can win a Test here, no question," he insisted. "The up-the-jumper stuff is not enough nowadays. They're actually very confident at the set-piece, as they showed against Ireland last week by winning half-a-dozen free-kicks and penalties from that phase. They weren't bettered at the breakdown, either. If we go into this thinking that an edge at scrum and line-out will be sufficient, we'll be making a big mistake. And if we get it wrong, we'll suddenly see them running through tackles, running through the middle of rucks. We need to be right on it."
The manager was perfectly justified in making an issue of all this, but even so, there is no obvious reason to believe that the Samoans will cope with a very good English scrum, or even with a red-rose line-out shorn of the services of two ultra-dependable targets in Tom Croft and Lewis Moody. The fascination this afternoon surrounds England's ambitions away from the darkened recesses, and to what extent those ambitions work in favour of the hard-hitting, not-so-Pacific islanders. An open, high-tempo game with plenty of width might be just up their street.
Samoa arrive here with a couple of barnstorming running backs in Alesana Tuilagi and Seilala Mapusua, both of whom were apparently hacked out of a mountainside somewhere to the north of Apia, and two highly-regarded half-backs in Tasesa Lavea and Kahn Fotuali'i. They also bring with them a more formidable bench than they are usually able to piece together – a bench that must be stronger in every sense of the word, given that the humongous prop Census Johnston will be sitting on it.
For Easter, first identified as a back-row forward of serious international potential by Brian Ashton back in 2007, this ascent to the captaincy is a formal recognition of his ever-increasing influence on the team. Never afraid to call a spade a shovel – he memorably cut through all the flannel surrounding England's miserably one-dimensional performance in Italy last February by telling everyone how the game had bored him rigid – the No 8 has been one of the principal instigators of the team's fresh, dynamic approach to Test rugby.
"I'm not the sort of captain who plays on people's emotions and as for Churchillian team talks, I don't have the command of the English language for that kind of thing," he admitted. "I'll make a few points that need making and then try to lead by example. It's a matter of doing my own job well and hoping the rest do theirs. I feel I've had an input for a couple of years now, but this is the biggest honour in the game. I'm extremely proud and extremely pleased."
Easter, the nearest thing this side has to an old-school type, was left out of Johnson's first elite squad, but the manager has come to see him as a player of considerable character. "It's a big word, 'character', and it's difficult to define," Johnson said, "but you can't play at this level without it."
Alesana Tuilagi The Welsh had their Quinnells, the Samoans have their Tuilagis – lots of them, all big and all scary. Alesana weighs in at around 19st and packs a punch to match. Not bad for a wing.
Seilala Mapusua Those who play against the London Irish centre pay him serious respect, usually in advance in an effort to get on his right side. It makes no difference: he still knocks seven bells out of them.
George Stowers Another London Irish player, one who occasionally makes Mapusua look conciliatory. Today, we will discover if he has the footballing pedigree to emulate the likes of Lam and Perelini.
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