England’s players joined their Samoan opposition in a respectful huddle at the final whistle but with due respect to the hard-up Pacific Islanders, who had lost all six previous meetings with their hosts by double-digit margins, this was always going to be the gimme fixture of the autumn series.
The near capacity crowd lapped up two tries by Jonny May and another for Mike Brown under the floodlights in this test event for evening kick-offs at next year’s World Cup. Worryingly, though, there were few definitive answers to the questions raised by England’s performances in the past fortnight’s losses to New Zealand and South Africa, and only the bluntest shot in the arm ahead of what must be regarded as a must-win match with Australia next Saturday.
George Ford’s dad, the Bath head coach Mike, had hot-footed it from his club’s Premiership win over London Irish in Reading, that finished about two hours before kick-off here, to take his seat alongside his wife Sally-Anne and together take in their son’s first start for England after four previous caps off the bench.
The 21-year-old fly-half reacted confidently to the challenge, pulling strings in attack - with his long-time pal Owen Farrell shifted into the centres to accommodate him - and kicking all but one of his goals. Ford will surely keep his place against Australia; the makeup of the backline, per se, remains wildly uncertain, partly due to injuries.
The solitary first-half try England constructed after 19 minutes was a thing of flawed beauty, riddled with so many question marks that while the television match official Simon McDowell was going through his review, the Samoan players marched upfield to await a restart. But they were wrong.
McDowell and referee Jaco Peyper decided that, as England thrust into midfield from a line-out palm-down by Courtney Lawes just inside the Samoan half, there was firstly no illegal block by Brad Barritt and secondly no forward pass as Brown popped a scoring inside pass to May, who ran to the posts. Brown had received the ball smartly from Ford, as the new No.10 ran a sweet looparound move with Farrell, showing a little of empathy or maybe even telepathy that England were expecting from the Lancashire lads who first clapped eyes on each other on opposing sides in under-12s rugby league 10 years ago, inaugurated a 10-12 partnership in union for England’s under-16s in 2008, and reprised it for the 18s and 20s.
Ford’s conversion had England 10-3 up, and the gap was the same at the interval after a penalty each by Tusi Pisi and Ford, although the latter missed one in added time from long range. Pisi had kicked Samoa into the lead in the third minute after England went offside form a line-out, one of a few blunders that included a quickly tapped drop out by the captain Chris Robshaw that was immediately turned over.
On the flipside the Samoan scrum came under fearful pressure from an England pack containing three men promoted in response to the previous setbacks: Rob Webber, James Haskell and Ben Morgan. Two of Ford’s three-pointers before the break were given against the Samoa pack not scrummaging straight and wheeling respectively.
What England wanted to see was something a little more smooth and impressive from the backs, with Ben Youngs at scrum-half for Danny Care having been the other alteration made by head coach Stuart Lancaster, and they had their wish five minutes into the second half. Samoa conceded a penalty at a line-out, and as England played with the advantage, Ford cross-kicked from the 22-metre line to his club-mate Anthony Watson, who beat his man with a knifing sidestep and unselfishly offloaded for Brown to score.
Ford, who had already collected his third penalty to put England 16-6 up, kicked the conversion to end any idea of an upset by the Samoans, who had claimed to be invigorated by the build-up spent arguing with their own union and threatening a boycott. A third penalty by Pisi on 50 minutes was almost their last serious contribution in the England half.
Ford would know better than anyone that Farrell had done the harder yards in this series by facing up to the world’s two top teams All Blacks and Springboks the last two weeks, while probably being short of full fitness.
Facing the Samoans, who are ranked a much more modest 11th, mostly allowed Ford precious extra seconds to plot his moves – though he twice had to pick himself up from bone-shuddering tackles by the second row Teofilo Paulo and centre Johnny Leota. The front-on tackle by Leota of Sale Sharks – he was one of 10 English-based players in Samoa’s squad – was judged worthy of a yellow card in the 52nd minute. Very soon afterwards England, exploiting the one-man advantage, had their third try, and May’s third of the autumn as the Gloucester wing was on the end of straightforward handling right to left along the line from a rolling maul.
That left a full quarter of the match, and then some, for England to add points but they failed to do so, instead emptying the bench and presumably girdling their loins for the old-enemy Wallabies.
England: M Brown; A Watson, B Barritt, O Farrell (B Twelvetrees 65), J May (M Yarde 61); G Ford, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 64); J Marler (M Mullan 59), R Webber (D Hartley 70), D Wilson (K Brookes 59), D Attwood, C Lawes (G Kruis 54), J Haskell (T Wood 68), C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan.
Samoa: K Pisi; A Leiua, R Lee Lo, J Leota, D Lemi (capt); T Pisi (M Stanley 69), K Fotuali’i; S Taulafo (V Afatia 78), Ti’i Paulo (M Leiataua 61), C Johnston (A Perenise 56), Teofilo Paulo (D Leo 52), K Thompson (F Lemalu 62), M Fa’asavalu, J Lam (TJ Ioane 56), O Treviranus.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).
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