Jack Rowell: Samoans' talent and determination leave the favourites gasping for air

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Surely England were always going to beat Samoa - weren't they?

The reality was, it was another visit to the fiery furnace of the real Rugby World Cup competition for England. First there came South Africa last week; now Samoa this weekend, unexpectedly so.

Clearly, England underestimated the Samoans, if not in words then, more importantly, in their own minds. Samoa's version of the haka was no mere ritual, for the physical gestures of attack were translated immediately into the game.

They started without fear, and at such a pace and with such skill that England were left gasping for oxygen. They scored a wonderful, multi-handling try from deep which was under-pinned by excellent lines of running on to the ball and at great pace from depth. They were to display such skill throughout, their attackers successfully challenging the world-class English defence.

Samoa scored one try and might have had others as first-up tackles were beaten by powerful and elusive running. The Samoans also applied pressure in the way their defence committed themselves going forward. Their blue shirts were often horizontal to the ground as they hunted and tackled their much-vaunted opponents.

It was high-class rugby, and so effective were Samoa that England were unable to control the ball. Jonny Wilkinson even missed a kick or two, a sure sign of English unease. Their "game managers", Matt Dawson and Wilkinson, were sometimes not in position as first receivers from rucks. This meant that less experienced and skillful mortals took over, but with consequent effect.

Poor decisions that were then badly executed meant that England could not develop their usual rhythm going forward, in the face of a determined opposition.

Teams from the South Sea Islands are runners with the ball by instinct and upbringing, rather than set-piece and close loose, ruck and maul players. Therefore it was hard for England to attack and break down their opponents. On occasions they did, but without dominance. Overall, and against bigger men, Samoa survived the set-piece pressure including several driving mauls from line-outs. But they could not escape when England made two scores from their considerable forward power. The first came from a trademark drive from a close-in line-out, finished off by Neil Back, and the other from a penalty try after Samoa had collapsed the scrum while being driven backwards.

These were critical scores in a match which, until those moments, had been a very close contest indeed. Both scores lifted the pressure on England who, given their huge investment and preparation, were bound to be fitter as the game progressed. With a much bigger squad, England always seemed likely to bring on two power players in Phil Vickery and Steve Thompson.

As fatigue set in for both sides, more space became available and the running of Ben Cohen, Iain Balshaw and Jason Robinson made deeper inroads into the Samoan defence. But Samoa showed no lessening of spirit. Some of their backs-to-the-wall defence in their own 22 was remarkable in its skill and desire.

This dimension epitomised a wonderful team display and such a collective will not just to do well but to win. If in the end they fell short, it was not by much and if Rugby World Cup is to sustain this form, then the IRB has to support the Davids of its world. It is quite absurd given the profits made that Samoa have been bereft for financial reasons of professional players such as Trevor Leota and Henry Tuilagi. Praise cannot be too high for their coaches for building such a skilful and psychologically and collectively strong team. In the latter respect, England, by complete contrast, were awry.

For extended periods of the game, this showed in the expressions on the players' faces, which were strained if not haunted as the pressure took over. But if their teamwork and organisation faltered, England always had the game-breaking skills of their runners, Balshaw and Co, to fall back on, not to mention Wilkinson.

Now there is the Uruguay match to look forward to - which will be an easier game - and training periods to exorcise any demons of doubt and refresh the game plan.

But what of the lessons other nations will have learned from England's discomfort? If you are going to play a good team, you don't let them build their game. Rather, you get in their faces. Countries such as Australia, New Zealand and France will have noticed that, but then they would have been aware of it already. England's struggle yesterday will have given clues to those nations about facing England. But then, in the big games which lie ahead, no one will be afforded the luxury of space in which to play. So in that respect, maybe this was a valuable preparation for tougher times ahead. All the same, England's rivals looking in yesterday will no doubt have had their hopes of England's eventual demise enhanced.

Jack Rowell, Bath's director of rugby, coached England from 1995-97.