Borthwick zeros in on ideal team as Samoa await

6 months ago 119
Manu Tuilagi looks out over Stade Pierre Mauroy with the England and Samoa flags hanging from the raftersEngland centre Manu Tuilagi will face Samoa, the country of his birth, for the first time
Venue: Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Lille Date: Saturday, 7 October Kick-off: 16:45 BST
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app

"It's a crucial game, there's a lot on the line."

Initially, it is hard to spot the importance that Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua sees on Saturday.

England are already through to the last eight as Pool D winners. Samoa, barring an extraordinary, improbable confluence of results, will be going home.

Elsewhere, most noticeably in Paris where Ireland meet Scotland, knockout permutations stretch to a spreadsheet. Numbers will be crunched mid-game. In Lille, there is no need.

This is a doornail-dead rubber in terms of the knockout stages.

But, the last eight is not the only number that matters.

For England, the primary concern is the 15 that take the field.

For the first time in this tournament, coach Steve Borthwick, previously hampered by suspensions to captain Owen Farrell and flanker Tom Curry, can field what appears to be his first-choice side.

The 10-12 axis of George Ford and Farrell, restored after an absence of two-and-a-half years, seems set to bear the weight of England's chariot in this tournament.

Joe Marchant and Jonny May's kick-chase abilities are preferred to Henry Arundell's pyrotechnic pace on wing.

Ben Earl's energy trumps Billy Vunipola in back row, Dan Cole's scrummage smarts edge him ahead of Kyle Sinckler for the tighthead starting spot.

'Kind of unstoppable' - Earl's route to a Test startFord-Farrell axis revived to face SamoaEngland v Samoa - match preview, team news and statsSinckler urges England to take 'last dance' chance

It is a team to fit a template and follow a trend. The statistics tell the story.

England have kicked more than any other team in the tournament, averaging more than 42 per game. They have the best success rate of any team in the tournament when it comes to recovering possession from those kicks.

They have also dominated territory - only world number one side Ireland have spent more time in the opposition half - and their defence has been as tight as piano wire, with just one try conceded in three games, against some admittedly indifferent opposition.

Borthwick's greatest success as a coach came via the same route. Leicester's patterns and pressure were not the prettiest; when they topped the Premiership table in 2022, all four of the teams below them scored more tries.

But it delivered results and, ultimately, silverware. This appears to be the 15 that Borthwick hopes can tread the same route. This will be their first outing together and their only chance to cohere before the knockout pressure comes on.

As a sideshow, Farrell is slowly stalking down a landmark number of his own.

Starting the match just one short of Jonny Wilkinson's total of 1179, this should be the game when he finally overhauls the World Cup winner as England's all-time leading Test points scorer.

Samoa's initial concern was more words than numbers in Thursday's media conference.

Their players had a private bet about whether they could sneak certain phases into their answers.

Second row Samuel Slade's simile, comparing his team's ability to adapt to a pokemon, was the most audacious attempt and when the poker faces started to slip.

It summed up the mood. Steven Luatua spoke about brushing up on the songs sung by his grandparents since switching his international allegiance from New Zealand.

Lima Sopoaga, another former All Black, joked about his ongoing search for a much-loved kicking tee that went missing after their opening-round win over Chile.

But coach Mapusua had receipts to query.

"At this World Cup we played Argentina so this will be the fourth tier-one team we have played since Rugby World Cup 2019," he stated.

Samoa played only 15 matches between the two tournaments, often against invitational or second-string sides.

By contrast, England played 40, almost entirely against established top-tier opposition.

Asked why a team that was behind the original Rugby World Cup shock - beating Wales in 1991 - still face such a stark difference in preparation, Mapusua could not provide an answer.

"That is probably a question to put to the powers that be," he said.

"I'm asking the same questions but it would be great to get an answer.

"It would be awesome to be able to play more Test matches in between World Cups. The more games we get, the more we will improve."

Mapusua and Borthwick were both playing when England and Samoa last met at a World Cup and Borthwick's side ran out 44-22 winners.

Current Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua is tackled by Olly Barkley in the teams' 2007 Rugby World Cup meetingCurrent Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua is tackled by Olly Barkley in the teams' 2007 Rugby World Cup meeting

Sixteen years on, the gap feels similar.

Mapusua's plan to overturn the odds is for his team to be "unapologetically Samoan".

"We're not going to walk away wondering, 'What if?," he said.

England hope to withstand that onslaught.

If they do, the biggest 'what if?' will be whether a team made in Borthwick's image and gathering momentum after four wins could, just maybe, find a way to go all the way.

Read Entire Article