South Sea storm rocks England

Magic moments that made 2003 memorable
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The Independent Online

Telstra Dome, Melbourne Sunday, 26 October

It was unquestionably the try of the World Cup: bolder and more imaginative than anything inspired by Stephen Larkham or Frédéric Michalak or Carlos Spencer, the creative élite of a tournament largely defined by its defensive cohesion and merciless physicality.

And it began not with the sudden shift of the ball some 80 metres from the England line - an exhilarating gamble that sent streams of blue-shirted Pacific Islanders zooming and zigzagging through red-rose barricades that had been successfully stormed only twice in almost seven hours of international rugby prior to this crucial game - but with a few whispered, piercingly eloquent words from one of the sport's greatest exponents.

Five days before the Pool C match between England and Samoa in Melbourne, a city yet to be convinced by the union code as a game for the masses but open to persuasion, Michael Jones had stressed the importance of the fixture to the future of Test rugby in the South Seas. An All Black of legend - many in the land of the silver fern place Jones alongside Colin Meads and Sean Fitzpatrick in the pantheon - this devout Congregationalist had played for Samoa, his mother's homeland, before the New Zealanders claimed him as one of their own. And here in the capital of Australian Rules football, he was hurting.

Aware that the impoverished islanders had only just managed to scrape together the money to compete in the tournament, and even more conscious of the fact that the 2007 competition in France would be out of their reach without some meaningful redistribution of the wealth generated by the international game, Jones identified the England match as his opportunity to make a stand.

"As a people, it is not our way to make a song and dance about things," he said. "But there has been a lot of rhetoric from the International Rugby Board and the major unions, and no sign of practical solutions to a problem that affects the game worldwide. If Samoan rugby in all its uniqueness is allowed to wither, the biggest losers will be everyone. This game against England is of crucial importance. We are crusading for all the smaller nations who feel isolated from the mainstream of the international game. If we can do well here, if we can force people to sit up and take notice of us, maybe our case will be heard."

His words amounted to a direct challenge, not just to the administrators, but to the Samoan players he had helped coach for three years at considerable cost to himself. Led by Semo Sititi, they were charged with emphasising the essential nature of the Pacific thread in the fabric of the sport. And they could do this only by producing a performance that would rock the certainty of an England team that had defeated South Africa 25-6 the previous weekend.

Six minutes into the game, the Samoans had done pretty much everything right and led through a penalty from Earl Va'a, an itinerant outside-half who had earned a week's money in any number of locations, from Richmond and Worcester in England to Southland in New Zealand. Then, it happened. Va'a was instrumental in launching a counter-attack of staggering audacity, and as the ball was repeatedly whipped out of contact to the next support runner, the brilliant full-back Tanner Vili and the potential-rich wing Lome Fa'atau combined with the likes of Kas Lealamanu'a, a huge 19st prop with the touch of an angel.

The Samoans maintained possession through 11 phases; extraordinarily, the ball went through 40 pairs of hands, the last of which belonged to the outstanding Sititi, who eluded Ben Cohen and Jason Robinson to stretch over in the left corner. In a compelling contest, it took England the best part of 70 minutes to put down the uprising; late tries by Iain Balshaw and Phil Vickery saw them home 35-22, but the night belonged to their opponents. Romance was not dead after all. Samoa had indeed made their case, gloriously and incontestably.