Everybody has a bad week from time to time. Mine wasn’t particularly brilliant to be honest, but that was largely self-inflicted as these days it takes me 48 hours to get over a hangover and so a Wednesday night trip to the pub effectively ruined my productivity for the rest of the week. But that fades into insignificance when compared to next England or Samoa’s weeks.
Stuart Lancaster’s side, and Stuart Lancaster himself, are under more pressure than they probably have been in the head coach’s three year tenure. Five defeats on the bounce – admittedly against the world’s best two sides – does not make for good reading, no matter how narrow the majority of those margins have been. The pressure has intensified as well as one of the clearest under-performers, Owen Farrell, retains his place in the starting line-up despite Kyle Eastmond showing some promising signs in the 12 shirt – the Bath man was deemed unfit, but yet he starts for his club side this weekend. The bottom line is that England need fluency, they need tempo, they need incision. They need a performance.
Samoa have had a bad week for very different reasons. Although they haven’t been at their brutal best this Autumn, they’re not under the same results-based pressure as England, having won three, drawn one and lost one in their last five. Instead, the Samoa camp has been besieged by rumours of a strike, brought about by poor relations between the players and the management of the Samoan Rugby Union, with gripes dating back to the 2011 World Cup. The allegations involve poor communication, misuse or misallocation of funds for the players and the inability to organise a p*ss up in a brewery. We don’t know the full facts, but what a shame it is that one of the most talented rugby playing nations is being held back from achieving its full potential. Clearly there is something fishy going on, and the only way to get around that is for the IRB (or World Rugby, as they are now known) to conduct a full and transparent audit of the Samoan rugby union.
Yes, these have been difficult, painful weeks. And matches against Samoa are always painful at the best of times. But whoever loses will be hurting a hell of a lot more come Sunday morning.
England Team News
England have made five personnel changes to the side to face Samoa with full debutant George Ford among the new names from last week's narrow defeat by South Africa. Owen Farrell moves to inside centre to make way for Ford, who forms an all-new half-back pairing with Ben Youngs, who replaces the dropped Danny Care. Kyle Eastmond is unavailable because of a concussion suffered last weekend. The other three changes come in the pack. Dylan Hartley makes way for Rob Webber at hooker while Ben Morgan and James Haskell come into the back-row, with Tom Wood dropping to the bench and Billy Vunipola missing out altogether.
Starting Line up: 15-Mike Brown , 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Brad Barritt, 12-Owen Farrell, 11-Jonny May, 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs; 1-Joe Marler, 2-Rob Webber, 3-David Wilson, 4-Dave Attwood, 5-Courtney Lawes, 6-James Haskell, 7-Chris Robshaw, 8-Ben MorganSubs: 16-Dylan Hartley, 17-Matt Mullan, 18-Kieran Brookes, 19-George Kruis, 20-Tom Wood, 21-Richard Wigglesworth, 22-Billy Twelvetrees, 23-Marland Yarde
George Ford. Much has been made of Farrell’s continued selection in the side given his clear lack of fitness and form, but the youngster from Bath finally gets his first England start in the 10 shirt against Samoa. For me though, it’s a bit of mixed fortune for the talented fly-half – yes, he is playing outside of Ben Youngs, who he knows well from his days at Leicester, but he has Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt outside of him. Now, Farrell played with Ford in the same positions in the under 20s, but that is a very different game, and neither Farrell nor Barritt add anywhere near the same kind of attacking or running threat that Eastmond or Joseph do at Bath. Ford plays so well when he is flat to the line, picking out his strike runners, but with the centre combination outside him his options has been limited. His decision making and ability to bring in the forwards off his shoulder are therefore key – but he can’t afford to go into his shell and stop attacking the line.
Samoa tight-head Census Johnston will win his 50th Test cap on Saturday when they face England at Twickenham. Johnston, who made three appearances for the Pacific Islands team, starts at tight-head for Samoa with Zak Taulafo and Ti'i Paulo joining him in the front-row. Filo Paulo and Kane Thompson link up in the second-row with Maurie Fa'asavalu, Jack Lam and Ofisa Treviranus completing the pack. In the backs, Kahn Fotuali'i and Tusi Pisi link-up at half-back with David Lemi, Alapati Leiua, Ken Pisi forming the back three. Reynold Lee-lo and Johnny Leota link up in the centres.
Starting Line up: 15-Ken Pisi, 14-Alapati Leiua, 13-Reynold Lee-Lo, 12-Johnny Leota, 11-David Lemi, 10-Tusi Pisi, 9-Kahn Fotuali'i; 1-Zak Taulafo, 2-Ti'i Paulo, 3-Census Johnston, 4-Filo Paulo, 5-Kane Thompson, 6-Maurie Fa'asavalu, 7-Jack Lam, 8-Ofisa TreviranusSubs: 16-Manu Leiataua, 17-Viliamu Afatia, 18-Anthony Perenise, 19-Fa'atiga Lemalu, 20-Dan Leo, 21-TJ Ioane, 22-Pete Cowley, 23-Mike Stanley
Alapati Leiua. Census Johnston, on his 50th cap, has a monumental battle keeping the Samoan scrum competitive against a strong England set piece, but Wasps man Leiua is a real weapon for the Islanders in the backline. Comfortable on the wing or in the centres, he has genuine pace and power and is deadly when shown half a gap. He’s been growing into the English game with Wasps but, over the last few weeks, he has really grown in authority and has an ability to make yards in the tackle when all common sense suggests he should go to ground. And if you need reminding of what he is capable of, check out the below from his Super Rugby days.
Ben Youngs v Kahn Fotuali’i. These two are used to facing off against one another in a Midlands derby and both will be absolutely critical to their side’s prospects on Saturday evening – albeit for different reasons. Youngs is returned to the side mainly because of Care’s collapse in form as opposed to his personal resurgence (although he has been solid), but he has an opportunity to put a real marker down. He should get a good platform from a pack that has been setting decent foundations all Autumn, but he needs to go back to his old ways of playing from instinct and at high tempo. Care, of late, has been far too considered and predictable in his approach – and that has stifled plenty of attacks at source. Youngs must avoid the same pitfalls. Fotali’i, on the other hand, can’t be guaranteed such a solid platform in all likelihood, with the Samoan set piece still looking vulnerable. He will have to be snappy at clearing up loose ball and look to involve his huge loose forwards in the near channels at every opportunity – that’s where they will generate quick and clean ball.
It’s been a difficult week for both sides and Samoa are, for me, one of the slumbering giants in world rugby...helped by the fact that the majority of their players are actually giants. I don’t think this will be the game where they lay down another shock on the world stage, however. There’s too much going on off the field and they haven’t looked overly fluent in the weeks leading up to the game – and England will be very, very hungry to shut their critics up. England by 19.
And in the other Autumn Internationals?
Wales v New Zealand: Rhys Webb has claimed that the All Blacks are “there for the taking”. Don’t say that, Rhys. You’ll make them angry. My full preview is at http://www.therugbyblog.com/autumn-internationals-2014-wales-vs-new-zealand-prediction but, for now, All Blacks by 6.
Scotland v Tonga: Memories of that terrible afternoon in 2012 still feel relatively fresh, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing a repeat. There are waves of genuine optimism in the north for the first time in years: Scotland by 15.
Ireland v Australia: This has the potential to a belter in the showdown between the two ex-Leinster coaches. The Wallabies already look more fluent under Cheika but Ireland are genuine dark horses for the World Cup under Schmidt. Ireland by 4.
Italy v South Africa: The Springboks seem to have recovered from that shocker against the Irish, whilst Italy continue to fail to impress. South Africa by 20.
France v Argentina: Are Les Bleus finally back on track? The signs are looking ominous, with the Pumas struggling for consistency. France by 12.