Nick Townsend: Wilkinson rides to rescue despite best efforts of Lima

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The Independent Online

Now that wasn't so painful, was it? That was the question that could have been asked by anyone surveying the scoreline as England arose from their collective dentist's chair of trepidation, their World Cup intact after victory over a nation reputed to possess the most brutal tackling team in rugby. Actually it was excruciating indeed until Jonny Wilkinson's left foot punctured Samoa's belief with a drop goal and a penalty at a vital moment.

England finished with four tries but convincing it wasn't, until the final minutes. And while a somewhat relieved England coach, Brian Ashton, will acclaim his team's display, it was their talisman who, rebuffing all the physical excesses Samoa could inflict, once again pounded in on the white charger.

There was one incident just before half-time when you feared not merely for Wilkinson's health, but for the continuing connection between his head and torso. Brian Lima, who bears the ominous nickname of "The Chiropractor", thankfully pulled out of the challenge at the last minute. His sportsmanship was rightly applauded. However Wilkinson proved too tempting a target shortly after the interval, when the Bristol centre did make contact. The victim smiled wryly and stroked over the penalty.

By then, the Newcastle man's endeavours had placed England as close as you can ever get, when confronted by this opposition, to a comfort zone. In the first half of his first World Cup game since that celebrated drop goal won them the 2003 tournament, he had contributed 13 points and had had a hand and a boot in his team's most potent moves. By the end, that tally had risen to 24. He missed only two kicks.

We had anticipated an early onslaught from Samoa, yet it was England who began by clearly attempting to exorcise the devils of that annihilation by South Africa. Barely had the Samoan haka died in the wind than Martin Corry had scored – the conversion, from a tight angle, kicked impeccably by Wilkinson. It appeared to set the tone, as England's cohesive attacks were a contrast indeed to their efforts against the Springboks.

Wilkinson contributed to England's second try, scored by Sackey to extend the lead, with a beautifully precise low left-foot kick that speared the Samoan defences. Mathew Tait was taken out, but the Wasps winger cantered in to take advantage. Ashton – left ashen by that humiliation against South Africa, his rubicund features having turned positively grey – afforded himself a rare smile.

A week ago, this looked like becoming the World Cup that England forgot. Victory in Nantes has simply thrust them to a position they expected to be in, albeit with their reputation seriously damaged.

If England needed this win then Samoa, who had been so close to overpowering Martin Johnson's side in 2003, needed it more. They had their backing, too: there was no question of neutrality among the French watchers in the crowd. They were vociferous in their support of les Bleus of Samoa.

For all England's possession, the threat from Samoa's counter-attack was ever-present, particularly that created by the verve of the Leicester winger Alesana Tuilagi. If only they had the set-piece play to match. One can comprehend fully why the world loves to watch them... and also why the world loves to play them.

It may just have been their day, too. Junior Polu's early second-half try lifted Samoa and unnerved England. Just four points separated the teams, one of whom had started the day at 10-1 on favourites and could have finished it to a chorus of derision. But Wilkinson struck, devastatingly so as it transpired, and Samoa's challenge petered out. Ashton and his men can breath again.