Oval Talk

England remain on course

Oval Talk

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It is the want of the British media and public to indulge in hyperbole following an outstanding sporting success, so it was no surprise that there was a sense of anti-climax about England's victory over Samoa at Twickenham last weekend.

England were good against Australia - actually, they were very good. But the fact they failed to reach the same heights in the 26-13 win over Samoa should not detract from the significance of the result.

It was, after all, the first time in six years that they have managed back-to-back wins in an autumn series. Furthermore, to belittle the victory would be disrespectful to a Samoa side who had pushed Ireland all the way a week earlier.

Yes, Samoa are woefully under-funded and too often lose leading players to the wealthier unions in New Zealand and Australia, but rugby is in their blood and the pride in their jersey is matched only by a genetic make-up that makes them wonderfully suited to the rigours of the game.

Their defence against England was magnificent, superbly lead by London Irish talisman Seilala Mapasua in midfield, and they showed more than enough attacking intent to score two well-deserved tries.

They were always going to be dangerous opponents and England manager Martin Johnson was spot on when he highlighted that fact ahead of the encounter.

His side were presented with a number of problems - not least at the breakdown and the physicality of Samoa's defence - and that they had to effectively adapt and think their way to victory was another sign of their growing maturity.

Despite their difficulties, England never looked like losing on Saturday, but is it too much to suggest that they might have lost the same fixture a year ago? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Aside from the result, and customary bumps and bruises that are the hallmark of playing Samoa (and which should prove good preparation for Saturday's encounter with South Africa), England can take a number of positives from the game.

Johnson had sensibly tinkered with his side following the Wallabies clash and the four new personnel all did reasonably well.

Flanker Hendre Fourie carried with real intent on his full debut and will get better with every international he plays, while James Haskell offered further evidence of Johnson's back-row strength in depth.

David Wilson is an able deputy for both sides of the front row and, although he is not yet the finished article in midfield, Matt Banahan offers a skills set that could well become a valuable option in next year's World Cup.

But for Oval Talk, the biggest bonuses from Twickenham last weekend was the form of prop Andrew Sheridan and centre Shontayne Hape.

Sale giant Sheridan produced some thundering carries and also did his usual demolition job up front. It has taken 'Big Ted' a bit of time to get back to full speed since reconstruction on both shoulders earlier in the year, but he is progressing well and is crucial to England's World Cup hopes.

And despite the doubts of one leading rugby scribe, OT likes the look of Hape. The Bath centre has a subtle step that keeps England on the front foot, as well as the offloading skills associated with a former league international.

It's no coincidence that Johnson's side have done well since Hape's introduction, and with Riki Flutey's body again proving unreliable his fellow Kiwi has been crucial to England's new attacking approach.

England have now won three of their last four internationals, and did reasonably well as they went down to New Zealand.

They may have been frustrated for long periods against Samoa, but nobody should underestimate the value of a hard-fought win in which they exposed more squad members to the challenges of international rugby.

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While England appear very much a team on the up, Wales look to be going in the opposite direction and were fortunate to come away with a draw against Fiji in Cardiff on Friday evening.

OT remembers only too well the brilliance of Fiji's victory over Wales in the last World Cup, and was in Marseille a week later to see them push eventual champions South Africa all the way in the quarter-finals.

So why did the Welsh public think it was going to be any easier against the Pacific Islanders last week, especially when the recent record of their own team is so poor?

Wales have won just once in their last eight games and OT is curious as to why the WRU was so keen to extend the contract of head coach Warren Gatland through to the end of the 2015 World Cup?

No doubt Gatland is a decent coach: his earlier record with Ireland and Wasps, plus the 2008 Grand Slam success with Wales, proves as much.

But most coaches have a 'shelf life' with any team and perhaps the WRU should have taken a bit more time before deciding to hand him another four years. His record of just nine wins from 26 games since the Grand Slam is hardly exemplary.

Wales have been losing their way for some time and one thing they can be certain of is that it will not get any easier against the All Blacks on Saturday.

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Duel international Andy Farrell never really had a chance to replicate the remarkable success he achieved in rugby league when he converted to union.

Age, some poor decisions as to his best position in union, and wretched luck with injuries, were always against him, although he can be proud of the part he played in helping England reach the final of the 2007 World Cup.

The Farrell name was prominent again last weekend when son Owen played a key part in Saracens' Premiership victory at Bath.

Injuries - and Gavin Henson's dancing antics - have left Saracens short of fly-half options at the moment and 20-year-old Owen has been recalled from a loan spell at Bedford to help fill the gap.

Owen is a centre by choice, but he did enough from fly-half at The Rec to show that he might one day match his dad's union credentials.

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