Time for England to show vision

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY: Impoverished Western Samoa ready to prove their worth as money talk disrupts home team's preparation
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

As representing your country used to be honour enough in itself to a rugby man, there has been something mildly unsavoury about the incessant monetary talk that has distracted England during their preparation for this afternoon's match against Western Samoa.

Given that this is one of those games where winning in style is as imperative as simply winning, the prolonged debate about whether professional contracts on offer from the Rugby Football Union should be accepted has not only been tiresome but has left the players even easier targets for the cynics among us.

Should things go awry in Twickenham's first floodlit international, they now have a salary as well as their performance for which to be blamed. By last night, the whole of the squad for today's match had followed the lead of their captain, Will Carling, by signing on the RFU's dotted line.

So much for Ross Turnbull's alternative plans for a rugby circus in which England's finest did not wish to be the clowns. (Turnbull, incidentally, is back in Sydney). For the real thing, look no further than the 78,000 megabowl in south-west London, even if the visitors are down the pecking- order compared with All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies.

At the same time, this game, with its prologue of England's contractual agonisings, neatly highlights the dichotomy of international rugby. Members of Carling's team are being paid well enough, in addition to their other sources of income, to withstand external blandishments. You could say something similar about their counterparts in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

But the impoverished Samoans, having effectively been abandoned by their nearest neighbours, exist only on the goodwill of hand-outs and even though their situation has improved thanks to the negotiating skill of their coach, Bryan Williams, their abundant talent makes them uniquely open to offers.

Half-a-dozen took themselves off to rugby league after this year's World Cup and equally worrying is the continuing threat even now that Williams has acquired sponsorship from a New Zealand bank which is giving his players an indeterminate income. It would probably be a fortune to most islanders but is modest by comparison with England let alone the big southern-hemisphere unions.

This disparity helps give today's match its overwhelming significance to the Samoans. "It is the biggest game in Western Samoan history," Williams said, bigger still than two World Cup quarter-finals.

You could not quite say the same about England, even if the intention is that it will mark a great leap forward towards the mobile/fluid rugby which has been a matter of theory but not practice ever since Jack Rowell became manager last year. "Dynamic" used to be a buzz-word; now it is just another tired cliche.

As was England's rugby against South Africa four weeks ago. Thus the changes in personnel - notably at half-back with the introduction of the Northampton pairing of Paul Grayson and Matthew Dawson - may well prove less important than another imponderable: whether England collectively have an ounce of tactical appreciation.

Running rugby is not the same as running round like headless chickens. Nor, some forwards may care to remember, does it entail an incessant search for contact with an opponent when carrying the ball.

This relies on other imponderables such as peripheral vision and, as it happens, this is one area in which the players know they score heavily because part of their build-up has involved sports-vision screening at their hotel on Richmond Hill from which the view of Twickenham's soaring new stands is a permanent reminder of what lies ahead.

Having yesterday collated the results of Thursday's testing, the testers pronounced that England's rugby players had better hand-eye co-ordination than any of the British Olympic athletes tested under the same system earlier in the year. This means running rugby should be second nature, but we wait to be convinced.

ENGLAND v WESTERN SAMOA

at Twickenham

M Catt Bath 15 H V Patu Vaiala

D Hopley Wasps 14 B Lima Marist

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 T Vaega Te Atatu

J Guscott Bath 12 G Leaupepe Te Atatu

R Underwood Leicester 11 A Telea Petone

P Grayson Northampton 10 D Kellett Ponsonby

M Dawson Northampton 9 J Filemu Wellington

G Rowntree Leicester 1 M Mika Otago University

M Regan Bristol 2 T Leiasamaiva'o Wellington

J Leonard Harlequins 3 P Fatialofa Manukau

M Johnson Leicester 4 P Leavasa Apia

M Bayfield Northampton 5 L Falaniko Marist T Rodber Northampton 6 S Kaleta Ponsonby

B Clarke Bath 8 P Lam Marist, capt

L Dallaglio Wasps 7 S Vaifale Marist

Referee: I Rogers (South Africa). Kick-off: 2.30 (BBC1)

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