Buzzing after last week’s demolition of a highly rated Australia side, England have made some rotational changes to the line-up, resting some of the elder statesmen of the side and giving other members of the squad the chance to impress. The areas where England were so successful last week – goal-kicking, running in open play, the line-out – all remain intact as Martin Johnson looks to cement the keys pairs of Courtney Lawes and Tom Palmer in the second row, and Ben Youngs and Toby Flood at half-back.
Establishing these key partnerships now is crucial to England’s progression; if the first choice pairings are definite, then there is time and plenty of games to experiment and find adequate back-ups ahead of next year’s World Cup. Johnson knows that in the centres is the one major area of doubt; hence the inclusion of Matt Banahan at 13, in what is a bold experiment. If England can run the ball and convert their chances as well as last week though, then they could put a big score on the board.
The handicap against the Pacific Island nations is such a sore point that it could take up a whole article. What is brilliant though is that Samoa, despite their disadvantage, can push the big sides all the way. Last week’s game against Ireland was yet another warning that you do not write any Samoan side off as an easy fixture. Their domination of the lineout will have surprised those who label them as a side more focused on their wide game than the set-piece. As the influence of Samoan players has grown in the northern hemisphere leagues and in Super Rugby, so has the quality of their all-round play.
They have always possessed mercurial backs, and never more so than now with the likes of Seilala Mapusua, David Lemi, Alesana Tuilagi to name a few. But there are top players up front as well in the form of Mo Schwalger, Census Johnston and George Stowers (pictured). It all means that if England do not turn up focused, they could be in for quite a shock.
What to expect:
Hopefully from a spectator’s perspective more of the same, following last week’s thriller at Twickenham. Both sides can play with width and pace, and England will look to test the fitness of the Samoa forwards. Knowing that they can now beat teams through running the ball as opposed to constantly kicking it away will be a huge confidence boost, as is having the knowledge that Toby Flood can kick at goal from pretty much anywhere in the opposition’s half.
For Samoa, field position should be the primary objective given the success of their lineout against Ireland, and from there they will be able to produce sustained attacks on the English defence. Tuilagi’s try last week came about from some excellent dummy running and the skill of Mapusua, so expect more of the same when Samoa reach the England 22. Paul Williams didn’t have a great evening with the boot in Dublin, and will need to re-find his touch to keep the Samoans in the game. There is so much power in their side that battered bodies come the final whistle are guaranteed.
All eyes on:
For England, Matt Banahan’s selection at outside centre has been the big talking point. He certainly has the potential to be an English 13, standing as he does at 6ft 7 and 17 stone. The question is though; is he just a big lump, and does he have the intricate skills to be an international centre? His performances at Bath in this position have been encouraging, and being partnered by club-mate Shontayne Hape will help ease his way into the game. With no real back-up on the bench to rectify the situation if it turns into a disaster, apart from Delon Armitage, the England coaching staff seem to be putting a lot of faith in his ability.
For the Samoans, Tasesa Lavea is the new man at fly-half, but arrives with a wealth of experience. A former New Zealand rugby league international before switching to Union and a six year stint in Super rugby with the Blues and Chiefs, he moved to Clermont last year and was called up to the Samoan squad for the first time this November. Comfortable at 10 or 12, he possesses some serious pace. The only doubt is how he will get on in such a big game, and it was evident last week against Ireland that whilst a lot went right when Samoa had possession, he is still getting to know his team-mates. His partnership with Mapusua has the potential to be explosive.
Head to head: Chris Ashton v Alesana Tuilagi
Two of the Premiership’s highest try-scorers have come up against each other a couple of times over the last two seasons for the clubs, but this is the first time they have faced each other representing their countries. Ashton’s reputation seems to improve with every outing he gets at international level, his amazing try last weekend no doubt placing him up there with the best in the world.
However, standing side by side with Tuilagi, there is a slight size differential. Whilst a similar height, the Samoan weighs a whole four stones heavier. This weight advantage could be huge if Tuilagi heads towards Ashton at top speed, and will test the former Wigan Warrior’s defence to the limit.
Weather: Grey skies and some light rain hopefully won’t affect both sides’ entertaining brand of rugby.
Last year’s result: England haven’t played Samoa since the 2007 World Cup, when they won 44-22. They did however face the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham in 2008, winning 39-13.
SportGuru prediction statistics: England 98.9%, Samoa 1.01%, Draw 0.1%
Twelve months ago, with the way England were playing and their personnel, this fixture might have been a lot harder to call. But, given how England are performing so far in this Investec International series, if they can take down Australia, then Samoa really should be easy to overcome. England by 10.
Expert view: Dave Attwood[podcast]/Podcasts/DaveAttwood.mp3[/podcast]
What are your thoughts? Can England follow up on last week’s performance at Twickenham?