World Rugby

Impact Samoa Match Has On England Heading To Quarterfinals At 2023 RWC

Impact Samoa Match Has On England Heading To Quarterfinals At 2023 RWC

Explore how the Samoa match shakes England's quarterfinal prospects. It was a critical turning point for Steve Borthwick's team at the '23 Rugby World Cup.

Oct 11, 2023
Impact Samoa Match Has On England Heading To Quarterfinals At 2023 RWC

If you listened to all the noise, you’d think England was out of the World Cup. 

Fan pessimism has shot back up following England’s grueling 18-17 win over Samoa.

The performance was littered with mistakes and left plenty for Steve Borthwick to mull over ahead of his side’s quarterfinal clash with Fiji on Oct. 15.

The matchup bears an added level of jeopardy, after the Pacific Islanders defeated England at Twickenham for the first time in their history in the lead-up to the tournament.

The Flying Fijians are making their first appearance in the knockouts since 2007 and will be intent on setting the record straight following their shock loss to Portugal at the end of the pool stage.

Their all-out style of attacking rugby is a spectator’s dream and an English nightmare.

Samoa possesses a similarly expansive style of play and used it effectively against Borthwick’s men, unleashing delicate offloads to push the ball out wide and break down the English defense, which had looked relatively watertight in the few games beforehand.

That leakiness will worry England’s defense coach, Kevin Sinfield.

In the warm-ups, his players looked tired and vulnerable, and though they tightened their tackling at the start of the tournament, their most recent display left a lot to be desired.

Sinfield’s primary duty now will be to manipulate England’s scramble defense, building a line that can withstand the off-the-cuff antics of the Fijian backline.

While this is an issue, it can be fixed relatively quickly. 

England showed it has the capacity to tighten its defensive cohesion during their impressive win over Argentina in Round 1.

England’s discipline and accuracy was comparatively dismal against Samoa, though this could largely be attributed to the team returning from a few day's sabbatical in France after having a bye the previous weekend.

Therefore, Borthwick will view it as a blip, rather than a sign of systemic ill-discipline.

The bigger issue facing the England head coach is the selection headache in the backline. While the pack remains relatively stable – except for the lack of options at No. 8 – the backs have changed formation each week.

This has fed into the rather lukewarm performances England has put in with ball in hand. They’ve won all their matches but, aside from Chile, rarely looked comfortable when going through the motions in attack.

After a few phases, the team often runs out of ideas, or players become unsure of their roles.

The continuous shifting of starting positions isn’t helping fix this dilemma, and the Samoa game lumped even more question marks over who should start.

Alex Mitchell has become the first-choice scrum half for the tournament but put in a bit of a stinker against Samoa, struggling to match the pace of his opponents. Then, the game shifted when Danny Care came on as a replacement. 

The veteran ended up scoring England’s winning try and subsequently put in a last-ditch try-saving tackle to spare England’s blushes. It’s been years since Care was a nailed-on starter, but following the action over the weekend, it may be time for Borthwick to pull the trigger.

The largest dilemma looms at fly-half. 

After being made team captain, Owen Farrell has become almost undroppable, despite not having a standout performance for England in over a year. 

Meanwhile, his two competitors – George Ford and Marcus Smith – both put in standout displays against Argentina and Chile, respectively.

They’ve shown form in the World Cup and both possess characteristics Farrell seemingly lacks.

Ford’s kicking is the best of the bunch, while Smith’s attacking pedigree is unmatched. So, where does this leave Farrell?

Against Samoa, the old 10-12 axis between Ford and Farrell was given a runout but faltered. 

England’s attack looked directionless, stumped by the high press of the Samoan defense, which led Borthwick to call time on the tandem early in the second half by pulling Ford off.

Looking ahead to the quarterfinals, it’s hard to imagine Farrell being dropped. However, this may be what’s needed if England’s attack is to reach its true potential.

That’s because there are some genuine playmakers itching for an outing in the midfield. 

Ollie Lawrence has been having a quietly strong World Cup and was electric when he came on to replace Manu Tuilagi over the weekend.

Both centers are destructive ball carriers who look most dangerous when paired with Joe Marchant in the midfield.

The Stade Francais-bound player is a real asset in that backline and can bind together all elements of defense and attack to make England a more harmonious entity.

He started on the wing against Samoa but looked more impactful when moved to outside center.

And then that leaves the back three. 

Freddie Steward is a settled starter, but his sidekicks aren’t. It all comes down to how big a gamble Borthwick takes. If he plays it safe, expect to see Jonny May and Elliot Daly in the mix, but if he rolls the dice in the hope of reinvigorating the English attack, we could see Henry Arundell and Max Malins enter the fore.

It’s an outlandish proposition, but one that feels needed against the attacking might of Fiji.