Midfield experiment shows Banahan is centre of learning

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The Independent Online

"Not every game," Martin Johnson said, "will be played the same way as the Australia game." Which was the England manager's way of saying, when he named his starting XV against Samoa, that just because the home side exhilarated one week, don't expect them to do so seven days later.

The other thing that Johnson emphasised 72 hours ahead of the contest with Samoa was the value of continuity. He conceded that advantage when he made four changes from the side that beat Australia 35-18, the most significant of them in the midfield and back row; today he and his coaching team will start to analyse the benefits of those changes and whether they can have a place in the squad preparing for next September's World Cup.

It is a year to the day since Matt Banahan played his previous international and allowance will be made for that, and for his lack of familiarity with the role of centre. Coaches, both at Banahan's club, Bath, and England can talk all they like about the potential of a 6ft 7in and 17st 9lb presence in midfield, but the fact remains that learning the role should not be done in an international.

Johnson's hopes are easily recognised: where New Zealand can come up with a Sonny Bill Williams, France with a Damien Traille, Wales with a Jamie Roberts, can England come up with Banahan? Unless he experiments, Johnson cannot know, and yesterday was the perfect opportunity to discover more. No disrespect to Samoa, but you would expect All Blacks or Wallabies to punish poor decisions more clinically than the Pacific Islanders.

There was the hope, too, that Banahan and Shontayne Hape would work in sympathy, knowing each other well from their club environment. It did not quite work out like that. As individuals, both had their moments, Hape by attracting defenders to him while trying to make space for others, Banahan by taking up intelligent support lines, but they could not work off each other in a game lacking rhythm and against defenders tackling with traditional relish. If Twickenham did not see Seilala Mapusua in attack as often as he appears there for London Irish, England know all about his defensive skills.

Banahan is only 23 and, in all but a handful of first-class games, his experience has been on the wing. His first involvement was a missed tackle on George Pisi, his second a strong charge halted abruptly by the referee's whistle because of obstruction by Courtney Lawes. Where England, both as individuals and as a team, sought momentum, they were denied both by Samoa's defence and their own high error-count.

Yet Banahan finished with one try (after a run-around by Hape) and might have had two had not Mark Cueto put a foot in touch while laying on the scoring pass. He was given the full 80 minutes, even if England's back-line was at sixes and sevens in the final moments, when Charlie Hodgson's arrival pushed Toby Flood out to centre and Delon Armitage replaced Chris Ashton.

Against South Africa next Saturday, Johnson will surely restore Mike Tindall to play alongside Hape. Clearly it will help England if Bath play Banahan in the centre but,with Hape and Olly Barkley available, the club will only do so on select occasions.

Hape and Banahan might have achieved more if England's back-row had been able to offload with the same freedom of the Australia game eight days earlier. James Haskell and Hendre Fourie played the strong, driving game for which they were selected but their clever opponents ensured they went so far and no further.

But this is what Johnson expected. To have highs, you must also have middles and lows, and Samoa fell firmly in the former category. "You do get a bit frustrated when decisions go against you," Johnson said as three further tries went begging, "but for that reason they had to keep their composure, so it was good experience."