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England grind out win against Samoa

Paul Ackford23/9/07

England 44 Samoa 22

Another worringly nervy and disjointed performance by England. And all this against a Samoan side who did not have a line-out to speak of and could barely absorb the pressure at the scrummage. But at least England did grind out a victory, which means that their continuation in this World Cup rests on a straight shoot-out against Tonga at the Parc des Princes on Friday. Only a victory will do, but if the Tongans play with anything like the ferocity and precision they showed against the Springboks yesterday, England are in for another tough night.

If there are legitimate reasons to sympathise with England over their recent trials it is because everyone in France wants them home. It was a marvellous atmosphere in Nantes, another genuinely moving sporting contest in a World Cup which is getting more colourful by the week. Samoa did not play especially well. They took an age to get into the game, were nowhere near the force they have been in the past, yet the crowd encouraged them throughout.

Allez les Bleus rang out as an accompaniment to every Samoan tackle and charge. In fact, the support was so partisan that Jonny Wilkinson's penalty kicks, which were essential to get England out of trouble on the hour, were greeted with howls of derision. Samoa will now leave France after their final match against the United States knowing that they have failed to do justice to their reputation coming into the World Cup, and they depart with the honour of the Pacific Islands firmly in the hands and feet of Tonga.

Martin Corry and Paul Sackey were the men who dug England out of their hole. Both scored twice, with Wilkinson adding 24 points, but, given the glut of possession and territory England enjoyed, they made awfully hard work of the win. Once again there was precious little creativity in midfield and England's kicking out of hand was inexplicably bad. Samoa could barely grab any sort of possession at the line-out, yet England insisted on keeping the ball on the pitch instead of booting it into the stands and giving Ben Kay, Simon Shaw and Corry a chance to recover it.

Wilkinson was the main culprit here. Initially he and Olly Barkley looked a decent partnership in midfield. Some of England's early work when Barkley and Wilkinson stood as pivots to generate some width to their attacks was clever. But when the Samoans started smashing into their tackles England's shape went belly-up. Wilkinson himself was the subject of a hit by Brian Lima which could have removed his head had not Wilkinson ducked in time. The look that he gave Lima and the referee when Alan Lewis allowed Lima to remain on the field was priceless. But there is no doubt that Wilkinson is not yet operating at the same levels that he used to. His accuracy is not there and he missed some important tackles early on when the Tuilagi brothers were running at full tilt.

Apart from England's line-out and a solid scrummage, there wasn't a great deal more to write home about. The big forwards started well on their ball-carrying chores with most of them enjoying the odd early rumble. Nick Easter found the go-forward he could not generate against South Africa and Corry was much more effective in close contact. Matt Stevens, too, put himself about, but the promising start the forwards grafted was not taken on by a back line which remains unsure of its direction.

That was the real worry about yesterday. England were gifted a try in the second minute after Shaw charged down an attempted clearance kick by Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. The fact that it then took an age and an agony of indecision before Corry eventually crashed over was a metaphor for the rest of the match. England were actually 23-6 ahead after half an hour, but did not have the poise and the confidence to close the game out. A similar bout of introspection against Tonga next Friday and they will be on their way back to Blighty.

At one stage in the second half there was even a good chance that the unthinkable might happen and Samoa might snatch a famous victory. A try by Junior Polu, who beat Mathew Tait to a touchdown after a fabulous kick through by hooker Mahonri Schwalger, got the Samoans to within six points of England at 26-20, and when Loki Crichton added the conversion to narrow the gap to four there was a real sense in the stadium that a major upset was on the cards.

That was the moment when England responded with a series of Wilkinson penalty attempts, which were greeted with boos. As Samoa tired, England finished strongly with tries by Corry and Sackey arriving in the last 10 minutes, but it wasn't a performance the current World Champions can have a high degree of satisfaction with.

There were exceptions. Most of the forwards can look back on periods in which they shaped events. Josh Lewsey was dependable at the back. His intervention at a crucial time when a Samoan score would have put them in front was hugely important and there was a measured effort from Andy Gomarsall, who tidied up some dangerous situations early on. Sackey, too, finished strongly after he was belted by lock Kane Thompson, and Mark Cueto is obviously a far better wing than he is a full back.
 
Yet England are still a team that are finding their way. There was one horrible spell in the middle of the game when England tried and failed to get a driving maul going. Time after time forwards attempted to pick and go only to fall over in a heap after a few centimetres. That was precisely the moment when England needed to reassert their authority, yet they failed to do so. They finished strongly in the end, but they, better than anyone, will know that they have to up the work rate and precision still further. Tonga are up on Friday and England's World Cup hangs in the balance. They are still in there fighting, but on the evidence of an afternoon in Nantes there are no guarantees.

Match details:
England: J Lewsey; P Sackey, M Tait, O Barkley, M Cueto, J Wilkinson, A Gomarsall; A Sheridan, G Chuter, M Stevens, S Shaw, B Kay, M Corry J Worsley, N Easter.
Replacements: M Regan, P Freshwater (Sheridan 64), S Borthwick (Shaw 65), L Moody (Worsley 69) P Richards, A Farrell, D Hipkiss (Tait 72).
Samoa: L Crichton; D Lemi, S Mapusua, B Lima, A Tuilagi, E Fuimaono-Sapolu, J Polu; K Lealamanu'a, M Schwalger, C Johnston, J Tekori, K Thompson, D Leo, S Sititi, H Tuilagi.
Replacements: T Fuga, F Pala'amo (Lealamanu'a 61, Johnston 74), J Purdie (74), A To'oala (H Tuilagi 68) S So'oialo (Polu 65), J Meafou (Mapusua 69), L Lui (Lima 72).

Scores: First half: 5-0 Corry try, 7-0 Wilkinson con, 10-0 Wilkinson dg, 10-3 Crichton pen, 10-6 Crichton pen, 13-6 Wilkinson pen, 16-6 Wilkinson pen, 21-6 Sackey try, 23-6 Wilkinson con, 23-9 Crichton pen, 23-12 Crichton pen.
Second half: 23-15 Crichton pen, 26-15, Wilkinson pen, 26-20 Polu try, 26-22 Crichton con, 29-22 Wilkinson dg, 32-22 Wilkinson pen, 37-22 Corry try, 39-22 Wilkinson con, 44-22 Sackey try.


PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 23 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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