England 28 Samoa 9: Three talking points
Harry Reardon looks at three talkings points after the hosts claim a hard-fought victory
Ford looks comfortable – at this level, at least
After a succession of defeats that were perhaps not quite as tight as the scorelines had suggested, this match, and the expectation of comfortable victory which came with it, saw England head coach Stuart Lancaster’s opportunity to put 21-year-old George Ford to the test. Meanwhile, erstwhile fly-half Owen Farrell – already yesterday’s man at the age of 23 – found himself shunted back to inside centre, the position he had taken in Lancaster’s first game in charge of England two years ago. The move in itself – albeit also part-prompted by injury to Kyle Eastmond – would surely have been more as a means of allowing Ford his head than testing out a viable half-back combination as Red Rose minds turn towards 2015. England have suffered for some time from a lack of invention, and Ford is more of an instinctive player, while Farrell – admittedly hampered by a lack of match fitness – has seemed in recent games to be lacking the game control skills and his usual level of precision to allow him to dictate. And given the chance to take control, Ford looked far from out of place, with cool kicks for territory in the early stages and signs of positional flexibility. A confident sidestep almost on his own line showed his temperament, and a break a minute or so later showed his class before Mike Brown’s knock-on with the line beckoning denied the team a try. Then early in the second half, sharp thinking and a precise cross-field kick put Brown over as England found breathing space. A highly promising showing. But – and this is a phrase that will be seen a lot around the fringes of this game reaction – it’s only Samoa.
Expected victory leads to a no-win evening
One problem with competitive sport is that it lends itself all too well to numerical simplification. Never mind territorial advantage, they say, never mind passing combinations, tackles broken, how often you get over the gain line. Look at the scoreboard, they say. It matters if you won or lost, not how you played the game. Never mind that, for instance, of England’s five defeats in a row before this evening, four had come against world champions New Zealand, and the fifth against second-ranked outfit South Africa. And so there was an odd type of pressure on the Red Rose for the visit of Samoa. Defeat was unthinkable – six losses in a row, the worst run since the darkest days of yore; victory, though, was almost uncategorisable. A win? Well of course they were going to win – we’ve said it before, it’s only Samoa, a team England had beaten by ten points or more in all six previous meetings. What, then, could England look to gain from their evening’s work? For much of the first half, it seemed, nothing. After the strains of early-era Coldplay and Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 rang round the stadium before kick-off, and the brass band had warmed up the crowd with a nostalgic blend of 1980s sci-fi theme tunes and Pomp and Circumstance, England too went back to the familiar, with fumbles and indiscipline allowing Samoa to make inroads. Things improved as the Pacific Islanders tired – Jonny May and Anthony Watson showed flashes of their pace and incision, and Ford settled in well – but this can only be the start if England are to make an impression on home turf next year.
The dual gremlins of indiscipline and inaccuracy remain
For all that England’s recent defeats – as touched on above – have been against some of the finest the rugby world has to offer, it is difficult to deny that they have also owed much to indiscipline and inaccuracy at key moments. This game promised to provide another test on those fronts. While the lesser nature of the opposition perhaps led to a slight drop from the intensity of previous games and therefore less of a disciplinary tightrope, the physical nature of the Samoans proved provocation from another quarter. Meanwhile, the night was crisp and saw flashes of rain throughout, lending itself to the hard hands and introspection which is a recipe for error. Next year’s World Cup will not fall quite as deep into an English autumn as this, but the home nation’s kick-off times will be even later into the night. Too often under admittedly difficult conditions, England found themselves offside or infringing at the breakdown, in central areas and in their own 22; too often, until they opened up in the second half, there were drops and inexactitude. There is still some way to go.