From a fan’s perspective, and one who enjoyed Saturday’s match from pitchside, the Samoa result provided a much needed feel good factor. Now that the dust has settled, what is the reality of the situation? Paul Ackroyd was scathing in his article in the Sunday Telegraph, dismissing England as patchy and fortunate against inferior opposition, and even daring to criticise Jonny!
Yes, England’s talisman was slightly off-key with the boot, notably missing what could have been a vital penalty from in front with the scores only separated by four points. Yes, he missed a tackle apiece on the Tuilagi brothers early on – but hold on Paul: who wouldn’t? The 20-stone Henry Tuilagi brushed aside South African Number 8 Danie Rossouw, and was only just dragged down by the fearless neanderthal Schalk Burger in a joint tackle. There was a point in the second half when Wilkinson was everywhere in defence when England really had their backs to the wall, and he brought a sense of calm organisation throughout.
Furthermore, whilst the score may have slightly flattered les blancs towards the end, let’s not forget that four years ago this was also the case when we scraped by 35-22: and what did that England team do next? No-one is suggesting the 2007 model could replicate the feat, but Samoa are an opposition not averse to World Cup upsets, having twice vanquished Wales in the tournament. In fact, in their last four head-to-heads this equals England’s highest score against Samoa which came in the 1995 competition.
Put in context, with both sides fighting for their world cup lives, up against a fitter, more professional Samoa side coached by one of the world’s great players, this was an impressive performance by England. Although Brian Ashton’s men lost their shape for a quarter of an hour, in the first half they showed glimpses of rugby which the world’s elite will take notice of, and they had the composure to finish the job. Critically, they have given their supporters something which has been missing since the Wales warm up match: hope.
Now, Tonga. The last time the teams met was in the 1999 pool stages at Twickenham in the 101-10 mauling by England, described by Epi Taione as the low point of his career, when the Tongan bench actually got in the shower at half time and refused to re-join the game. Somewhat of a different proposition now then: if their surprise win over Samoa suggested this, their heroics against South Africa only emphasised the threat they pose.
If the English pack can subdue their opponents and sideline Finau Maka, probably the standout forward of the tournament to date, we will win. Set piece dominance should be a given, it is at the breakdown that England can and must turn the screw on their opponents. Disciplined aggression in defence, coupled with timely, ferocious counter-rucking should be England’s mantra from now on. They have the skill and the conditioning to deal with the Tongans, and should go into the quarter-final showdown with Australia on more of a high.
If they are to do themselves any justice in that game whatsoever they must concentrate on raising the tempo of their play. By now the familiarity and confidence in one another should have transferred itself from their club game; a game plan seems to have been collectively embraced and selection has today been proved consistent for once. The players know they need to be sharper and more penetrating. One Pacific Island as been taken, brush past the next and suddenly the Southern Hemisphere clash becomes a touch more mouthwatering. Roll on Friday.
By Rob Douglas