Samoa make England go back to the basics

England 26 Samoa 13: Johnson's changed side huff and puff against tough islanders as they struggle to match performance of a week earlier
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The Independent Online

An acceptably adequate victory over an emerging nation, or a dispiriting afternoon's huff and puff after the euphoria of defeating Australia? The verdict is bound by the straitjacket of expectation. If you believe England should put away the likes of Samoa by dozens of points, and never mind the four changes made from the team which did for the Wallabies a week previously, this was a disappointment; a step backwards. If the mess that passes for a set scrummage is taken into account along with the Samoans' defensive approach, perhaps not. Either way this was no headline-grabber – more a quietly instructive exercise for two teams with wildly divergent world views and ambitions.

Whereas England have been playing Australia regularly for 101 years it was only their sixth meeting with – and sixth win over – the Samoans. Three of those were engineered by the comparatively modern phenomenon of the World Cup. It is worth mentioning, then, given the positive records reeled off seven days previously, that this was England's lowest score in the series and the equal of the smallest winning margin.

And as against Australia, there were two tries to each side. Matt Banahan, one of the incomers as Mike Tindall was rested at outside centre, scored for England after 46 minutes, and is emerging as a rugby-playing Peter Crouch, somewhat outsize by conventional standards but, with his fourth try in six Tests (the previous five had been on the wing), a reliably regular scorer. He used his height to intercept a pass by Kahn Fotuali'i in the 72nd minute and pass inside to Danny Care who did the same to Tom Croft for England's second try, converted by Toby Flood.

"In a series of four autumn games [England finish against South Africa next Saturday] you have to put last week aside," Martin Johnson, the England manager, said. "There were so many stops and starts today. A little bit more intensity and accuracy would have made a difference." Johnson did not castigate his players for ignoring a couple of kickable penalties; he might not have been so sanguine after a one-point semi-final loss.

Johnson also pointed to "more disallowed tries than any game I've been involved in". Three, to be precise: Ben Foden's rear end went into touch in Tasesa Lavea's cover tackle after 10 minutes; Shontayne Hape's forward pass to Chris Ashton did for the next chance midway through the first half and Mark Cueto had a foot or two in touch in the 63rd minute just before setting Banahan free.

England would have fancied themselves to give Samoa a going-over in the scrummage, and the number of free-kicks and penalties awarded to the hosts nudged double figures as the blue jerseys stepped back, splintered or engaged early. It was yet more agony for those who see the scrum as a battle to be won, and from which a significant advantage should accrue.Yes, it is draining to the struggling team but the momentum for the dominant one is absent. England led 6-3 at half-time – two penalties by Flood to one from Paul Williams – but never quite wound up the hoped-for dynamism in their second rows, Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer, though Andrew Sheridan was at his storming best.

Samoa had seven Premiership players in their XV, but the likes of Alex Tuilagi and David Lemi were nowhere near as prominent in attack as they might be in an ordinary league fixture. Seilala Mapusua, their London Irish centre and defensive organiser, spoke of an opportunity lost and used the word "stubborn" to describe England, while conceding the hosts had "built through the phases and taken their chances". The Samoa captain, Mahonri Schwalger, reckoned the Irish referee Peter Fitzgibbon allowed England to spoil what little clean ball his side had. Always, the mind wanders to the possibilities if Samoa and Fiji, among others, had more regular meetings with the elite.

Williams scored for Samoa 35 seconds into the second half, brushing past Ben Foden after Hape had the ball ripped from him in England's 22. England got back in front when Hape dummied a pass and fed Ashton who passed tidily on a tricky angle to Banahan. Flood converted and added penalties after 53 and 69 minutes for 19-8. But neither Hendre Fourie nor James Haskell bucked the notion that Croft, Lewis Moody and Nick Easter are the first-choice breakway unit.

George Stowers's chip and chase required a half-tackle by Foden and a big right hand knocking the ball from the No 8's grasp to thwart a try. At the resulting scrum England lost control, Fourie was turned over, the ball flashed to the right and Cueto's tackle on Manaia Salavea did not prevent the flanker slipping a neat pass to the wing replacement, Fautua Otto.

England B Foden (Northampton Saints); C Ashton (Northampton Saints), M Banahan (Bath), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester Tigers), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), D Wilson (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton Saints), T Palmer (Stade Français), J Haskell (Stade Français), N Easter (Harlequins, capt), H Fourie (Leeds Carnegie). Replacements S Thompson (Leeds Carnegie) for Hartley 55, D Cole (Leicester Tigers) for Wilson 55, D Attwood (Gloucester) for Lawes 67, T Croft (Leicester Tigers) for Haskell 67, D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 67, C Hodgson (Sale Sharks) for Hape 75, D Armitage (London Irish) for Ashton 75

Samoa: P Williams (Sale Sharks); D Lemi (London Wasps), G Pisi (Taranaki), S Mapusua (London Irish), A Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers); T Lavea (Clermont Auvergne), K Fotuali'i (Hawke's Bay); S Taulafo (London Wasps), M Schwalger (Taranaki, capt), A Perenise (Hawke's Bay), F Levi (Newcastle Falcons), K Thompson (Southland), O Treviranus (Male Sharks), G Stowers (London Irish), M Salave'a (Narbonne). Replacements T Paulo (Clermont Auvergne) for Schwalger 48, C Johnston (Toulouse) for Taulafo, 12-19; for Perenise 67, I Tekori (Castres) for Thompson 40, A Aiono (Marist) for Treviranus 65, J Poluleuligaga (Exeter Chiefs) for Lavea 66, G Williams (Clermont Auvergne) for Pisi 75, F Otto (SCOPA) for Lemi 59.

Referee P Fitzgibbon (Ireland).