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England’s lucky escape can’t hide identity crisis threatening to derail World Cup

England 18-17 Samoa: Danny Care’s late try saw England avoid a historic defeat but they face huge questions ahead of the quarter-finals

Luke Baker
in Lille
Saturday 07 October 2023 20:09 BST
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England turned a stunning half-time deficit into the most unconvincing of wins over Samoa to finish their 2023 Rugby World Cup pool stage campaign with a 100 per cent record but find themselves with far more questions than answers heading into the knockouts.

Before this summer, England had never lost to a Pacific Island nation but following a historic warm-up defeat to Fiji at Twickenham and this fortunate let-off in Lille, they seem to have developed an Achilles heel at the worst possible time. As a quarter-final rematch against the Fijians looms next weekend, barring any Portuguese heroics in the group-stage finale on Sunday evening, England have an identity crisis.

If Steve Borthwick’s side are looking for positive omens, they could perhaps latch on to the fact that the only time an England team had trailed Samoa at half-time in their previous eight victories came at the 2003 World Cup, when a 16-13 deficit in Melbourne became a 35-22 triumph by full-time. And we know how that tournament ended for the Red Rose.

But even the most optimistic of England fans surely won’t be mentioning the current side in the same breath as the World Cup winners and, judging by the boos that rang round Stade Pierre-Mauroy at full-time following the narrowest of escapes, there aren’t many optimistic supporters left.

This 2023 vintage lack the clear identity that their countrymen from 20 years ago had cultivated. And coming from 17-8 behind to snatch an 18-17 victory on the day that Owen Farrell broke 2003 talisman Jonny Wilkinson’s all-time England points record of 1,179 certainly couldn’t hide the glaring deficiencies that look set to be exposed in the cauldron of knockout rugby.

When Farrell inexplicably ran out of time on the kick clock as he lined up a fairly straightforward penalty with 15 minutes remaining and the game in the balance, to a cacophony of jeers and boos, it seemed as if England were destined for defeat.

It’s somewhat to their credit that they dug deep and somehow emerged victorious, largely thanks to replacement scrum half Danny Care, Firstly, Care sniped over from an attacking scrum, with Farrell managing to add the conversion in time, to give England a late lead. Then he produced a brilliant tap tackle at the death as Samoa streaked towards the line, to avoid a first-ever World Cup loss to a ‘tier-two’ nation. But this won’t be a day from which they take many positives.

Danny Care’s late sniping try got England out of jail (AFP via Getty )

George Ford had arguably been England’s best player at this World Cup, with his drop-goal heroics in the win over Argentina a particular highlight, but with Farrell back from his red-card suspension, Borthwick opted to reunite the Ford-Farrell 10-12 axis. Until the World Cup warm-up defeat to Wales earlier this summer, where the partnership’s rebirth was ended after just six minutes due to Farrell’s red card, the pair hadn’t been seen at 10-12 for England since a heavy loss to Ireland in March 2021.

With his captain back outside him, the fly half seemed slightly neutered in attack and perhaps the fact he was replaced by Marcus Smith on 50 minutes with his team nine points down was an admission by Borthwick that this combination won’t be starting the quarter-final. Smith certainly provided an immediate spark to England’s attack with his energetic, jinking dashes and helped create a try for Joe Marchant that was only disallowed due to a Maro Itoje forward pass in the build-up.

An even greater worry for England however was the defensive problems created by pairing Ford and Farrell, which meant Manu Tuilagi – playing against the country of his birth for the first time – shifting out to 13 and Marchant heading to the wing.

Tuilagi has impressed at 12 during this World Cup, with he and Marchant forming an effective centre partnership. And while his hard-carrying remained in attack, Tuilagi and Farrell looked lost as a 12-13 pairing in defence. Heading into this clash, England had gone 160 minutes since conceding a try (Rodrigo Bruni’s score in their opener against Argentina) but were fortunate to only let Samoa cross the line twice in the first half.

Firstly, Jamie George’s intercepted pass led to Nigel Ah Wong finishing in the corner and the Samoan winger then had a second try when Danny Toala found him with a pinpoint crossfield kick over the leaping Freddie Steward.

Nigel Ah Wong delivered two tries for Samoa (Getty )

A 14-8 half-time advantage was the least the Pacific Islanders deserved. Only a lengthy TMO review that deemed Tumua Manu had knocked on ruled out Duncan Paia’aua’s try, which came after an appalling Alex Mitchell box-kick had gone straight in the air and then been batted about.

Time and again, Samoa broke through the defensive wall and made huge metres, only for a pass to hit the ground or a scrambling defender such as Care to keep the wolf from the door. Given the clinical edge Fiji have shown at this World Cup, England will simply have to be more diligent without the ball, if indeed that expected quarter-final does come to fruition.

The attack, marshalled by whatever combination of Ford, Farrell and Smith is selected, will also need to improve, although the build-up for their first try on nine minutes showed what they’re capable of, as a flat Farrell pass exposed an over-committed Samoan defence. Tuilagi expertly drew two defenders and released Ollie Chessum for the touchdown.

The set piece also largely held up, even in the face of referee Andrew Brace’s seeming leniency towards the Samoans at scrum time, with Chessum only denied a second try from the back of a driving maul by another TMO review.

But on a day where the underdogs lived up to their pre-match promise of playing in an “unapologetically Samoan” style, England’s search for exactly who they are goes on. And with greater challenges looming, time is running out to find the answer.

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