Cueto proves the catalyst
Johnson's men show resilience to grind out victory, writes Michael Aylwin
Published 21/11/2010 | 05:00
My word, Samoa are a better team than Australia, it seems.
That would have to be the conclusion of anyone who knew nothing other than rugby at Twickenham the past couple of weeks. It is a mark of how far the islanders have come that England should be allowed a sympathetic hearing for a 13-point win over the best that a nation of a couple of hundred thousand has to offer.
But it is also a mark of how far England have come in this extraordinary week or so that a win owing much to an overwhelming advantage in territory and possession should be greeted enthusiastically by their suddenly adoring public. Two tries all is no one's idea of a hiding. It might have seemed like one last week, but England were nowhere near as rampant as they were against the Aussies -- Samoa would not let them be.
It might even be possible to argue that England played better here.
Certainly there were individual performances to compare with those that shook up the morbid mob at HQ -- Shontayne Hape played better this week than last, and Hendre Fourie has put Martin Johnson's captain, Lewis Moody, under severe pressure. How he must wish he could play with this lot every week.
It did not stop there, Mark Cueto has suddenly rediscovered the form that made him the Premiership's finest try-scorer a few years ago. Okay, his try-scoring drought at international level stretches on, but he has rediscovered an appetite for the ball in hand, rather than off the boot, that had deserted him at this level. And this weekend he was dealing with some serious tacklers.
He was involved in an incident midway through the second half that neatly summed up the difference. He received the ball from Ben Foden off a Samoan punt. He thought about the long pass to Chris Ashton, which seemed the sensible thing, but, the cheers of last week no doubt echoing through his head, he chose to run it back at the phalanx of Samoans that were approaching. Well, it was a policy that worked last week, so why not?
It did not work this time. He was flattened and mobbed. The penalty was inevitable. Fortunately for his peace of mind, the excellent Paul Williams, his Sale team-mate, missed the kick in a way that he would not miss Cueto himself in the second half, ending the latter's latest incisive run with a devastating hit.
At that point midway through the first half, things hung in the balance. England were playing a perfectly fine game -- dominant in the tight and ambitious behind -- but nothing was happening for them.
A side who, let us not forget, were being pilloried by those self-same Aussies as recently as June in Perth might easily have been disconcerted by all this tackling and the inability to make what worked for them last week work for them this.
And there were times when it seemed a wobble might be on the cards.
Twice England had the ball over the line in the first half for what would have been excellent tries, but twice they were denied. Even the fabled set piece was struggling to make itself pay, a series of five-metre scrums at the end of the first half yielded nothing.
Then Samoa took the lead at the very start of the second. This was when England could easily have panicked. They had forced those tacklers into action more than 80 times in the first half, compared to the 17 they had been obliged to make themselves, and yet they were losing 8-6, and the game was now well into middle age.
So it is to their credit that they kept at things. Cueto, again, encapsulated it. He went looking for the ball and when he had it he looked to use it, not to retreat into the safety of a kick to the skies. He nearly put Matt Banahan in for a second try, but his toe had clipped the line a split-second earlier.
The experiment of playing Banahan at 13 could be deemed a success of sorts. He took his try well and his physicality kept one of the most physical teams in the world interested throughout. His day had started badly, missing a tackle on George Pisi, but he too persevered and won his reward.
Talk about perseverance, though, and the last word has to be with Samoa, as it was on the field. Even at 8-6 up early in the second half we might previously have expected a capitulation, certainly at 26-8 down with seven minutes to play. But this lot are organised and, as importantly as anything, they are fit.
Some may think it a shame that they have to leave their home to achieve those standards in professional leagues around the world, but it is a price worth paying when the end result is a side that can push a leading nation in fine form so hard. Wherever they play they carry the spirit of their homeland with them, and rugby is vastly enriched because of it.