England fending off crisis talk before Samoa test
LONDON (AP) — With England in turmoil on the field and Samoa in a crisis off it, there will be an unexpected edge to Saturday’s rugby test at Twickenham when they meet for the first time in four years.
The test that almost never happened because of a threatened Samoan boycott has turned into a critical one for England coach Stuart Lancaster, who is under scrutiny because of results for the first time in his three-year tenure.
England has lost five tests in a row — its worst losing run in eight years — and critics say the team is starting to go backward after an impressive start to Lancaster’s spell in charge. Lancaster is refusing to panic, though, and is dismissing talk of a crisis.
“If you say that, you’re talking about a team that has no belief in what they’re doing, has no sense of direction,” he said. “You’re talking about a group of players who are not aligned with what you’re trying to do, not agreeing with where you’re going, and have poor discipline on and off the field.
“That’s a team in crisis. For me at the moment, I don’t see any of those traits in this England team.”
Lancaster can point to the fact that those five straight losses have come against New Zealand and South Africa, the world’s top two teams, with three of them coming away to the world champion All Blacks in June. He can also say the team is in a much better shape than it was when he took over in the aftermath of an embarrassing World Cup campaign in 2011.
Yet, 10 months out from a home World Cup, England’s chances of toppling the southern hemisphere powers look slim. The team has lost by three points to both New Zealand and the Springboks over the past two weekends, although last-minute tries have given the scorelines a flattering look.
And narrow defeats no longer wash with the English.
“I have been involved with England when we were getting beaten heavily by these sides and when a narrow loss would have been acceptable,” recalled England flanker James Haskell said. “But this side has now developed to a point where we have beaten the world champions and where we ultimately should be beating these teams and be right up there.
“No one is satisfied to only be pushing those teams close.”
While England’s pack have fronted up this month, with the scrum and lineout working well, Lancaster will be looking for a much-improved display from a backline that was rudderless against South Africa. The inclusion of flyhalf George Ford for his first test start should give the backs more direction, with Owen Farrell switching to inside center.
The Samoans are in London not just seeking a first win over England in seven attempts. They are also keen to show a united front after a week of disharmony centering on their dispute with administrators back home.
Players threatened to boycott this match to highlight their concerns about the Samoa Rugby Union’s administration and lack of financial transparency. The strike was averted thanks to the intervention of the world governing body. Samoa prop Census Johnston confirmed this week that the team was threatened with exclusion from next year’s World Cup.
“It has brought us together and given us more tightness in our preparation and focus for Saturday,” captain and winger David Lemi said. “It’s a massive opportunity for us — it has been a while since we played England so we are grateful to have this chance going into the World Cup.”
Samoa beat Canada 23-13 in Vannes, France, on Friday after starting the autumn tests with a 24-13 loss to Italy.
England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw (captain), James Haskell, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood, David Wilson, Rob Webber, Joe Marler. Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Matt Mullan, Kieran Brookes, George Kruis, Tom Wood, Richard Wigglesworth, Billy Twelvetrees, Marland Yarde.
Samoa: Ken Pisi, Alapati Leiua, Rey Lee Lo, Jonny Leota, David Lemi (captain), Tusi Pisi, Kahn Fotuali’i; Ofisa Treviranus, Jack Lam, Maurie Fa’asavalu, Kane Thompson, Teofilo Paulo, Census Johnston, Ti’i Paulo, Sakaria Taulafo. Reserves: Manu Leiataua, Viliamu Afatia, Anthony Perenise, Fa’atiga Lemalu, Dan Leo, TJ Ioane, Pete Cowley, Mike Stanley.