England v Samoa
Shuffled England set for defining test
Will Macpherson
November 21, 2014
Fly-half George Ford, who makes his first England start, messes with his Bath team-mate Anthony Watson © Getty Images
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There's no two ways about it: England need a win. They've been flattered by three-point defeats to New Zealand and South Africa and are on their worst run in six years. They've copped flak, they've publicly chastised themselves and they've made changes.

While Stuart Lancaster has hardly thrown out his meticulously put together formula, the changes represent a minor shift in mentality and certainly a triumph of form over reputation. Benched are Dylan Hartley, who pays for his wandering boot against South Africa, and Tom Wood. Lancaster said this week that they are players he can't ever remember leaving out of the XV when they've been available to him. Billy Vunipola and Danny Care, another pair of Lancaster favourites, are discarded completely. Kyle Eastmond misses out, concussed.

The major shift comes with the selection of George Ford at outside-half. Fans from Bath and beyond have been calling for him to start - he has been the Premiership's form fly-half all season, of course - and Owen Farrell has been beyond ring-rusty in the first two games of the series, to the point that Ford's introduction for the final quarter against South Africa felt like sun breaking through clouds. Farrell moves to 12, where his international career started, the second piece of an intriguing creative axis. There are plenty of others with much to prove. James Haskell has been brilliant for Wasps and will be hungry as sin. Rob Webber has been around for yonks but opportunities for more than brief cameos have been few and far between. Bens Morgan and Youngs will be charged with bringing the zest and verve so lacking in Vunipola and Care's display a week ago.

Team news

  • England: As expected, Lancaster has rung the changes. In are Haskell, Morgan, Webber, Youngs and Ford, while Farrell shifts to inside centre. The back three is unchanged with Mike Brown between Anthony Watson and Jonny May, with Brad Barritt retaining his spot at outside centre. Skipper Chris Robshaw joins Morgan and Haskell in the back row, while Webber is the only change in the tight five. Richard Wigglesworth and Billy Twelvetrees make their first appearances of the autumn on the bench.
  • Samoa: Census Johnston, one of the SRU's most vocal critics this week, wins his 50th international cap at prop. They've made six changes to the team that beat Canada 23-13 last week, with Sale centre Johnny Leota and Northampton full-back Ken Pisi coming in. England will be very familiar with plenty of other players in their side, includfing Northampton scrum-half Kahn Fot'uali'i, Wasps winger Alapati Leiua and former Quins flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu.

The Samoans will be hungry. They've spent the last month fighting their board and Prime Minister and threatening not to play in this fixture. This week the story gathered pace as it was revealed their World Cup place and flagship game against New Zealand in Apia were under threat and senior players spoke out. If Samoa have ever been up for it, this is the night.

In form:

People don't talk much about England's props. Davey Wilson's hardly the most glamorous player going round but he's rock-solid at the scrum and, even if his hands often let him down, offers plenty in the loose - as he displayed with his maiden international try last week. Joe Marler's ever-changing hair makes him slightly more eye-catching but he's equally impressive and both could be proud of their work in the scrum against the notoriously solid South Africans and the part they play in England's reliable lineout. Census Johnston may be winning his 50th cap for the Samoa but don't expect him to be given an easy ride by these two.

Samoa's outside backs are electric. England's Northampton folk know all about Ken Pisi but Alapati Leiua is newer to the Premiership. He was simply outstanding for Hurricanes, whether playing centre or wing, and has an eye for a gap and outside break that few in the game can match. Expect him to appear off his wing seeking the ball causing trouble. Throw all David Lemi's experience into the mix and you've a potentially potent trio.

Out of form:

Owen Farrell will have mixed feelings about being shifted to 12. He's a natural leader whose outstanding game management and impressive kicking - from hand and tee - suit fly-half. Just a few months ago he was comfortably first choice in the position and was one of the team's linchpins. But such has been his form slump and rustiness that he'll be relieved to be in the team at all. He'll be delighted for his old mucker Ford - they've played as a 10-12 pairing since they were 16 - but will need to make a big impression at centre too. Eastmond could be back next week and Billy Twelevtrees and Luther Burrell are lurking. Whether Farrell and Barritt are the centre pairing to best make use of Ford's creativity remains to be seen, but the new man at 12 has little choice but to hit the ground running.

Samoa's Census Johnston looks to shift the ball during training, Western Springs, Auckland, New Zealand, September 21, 2011
Samoa's Census Johnston wins his 50th international cap © Getty Images
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Key battle:

Ben Youngs will be right up against it with Kahn Fotuali'i lining up opposite him. Samoa's Saints scrum-half is a constant threat from the base, with a sharp pass and venomous snipe but will be an utter nuisance for Youngs all afternoon. Youngs has a chance, here. Danny Care was first choice during the Six Nations, he was head and shoulders above his rivals and in scintillating form. But the new season, like many of his Harlequins team-mates, has not been kind to him and he's looked cumbersome and his pass has lost its zip (aa shown by the intercept he threw from the base a week ago). Youngs is a steady hand these days and if he can provide the control Care has lacked then he'll keep his place. Simple. He's just got to deal with Fotuali'I first. Not so simple.

It'll be worth keeping an eye on Chris Robshaw's battle with his old Quins team-mate Maurie Fa'asavalu on the flank. As ever, the breakdown will be key.

Stats:

  • Only three players have won 50 caps for Samoa: legendary centre Brian Lima, who appeared at five World Cups, centre To'o Vaega and former captain Semo Sititi. Census Johnston wins his 47th, but also has three for the Pacific Islands.
  • Samoa have never even lost by less than 10 points and England have never scored fewer than 26 points in this fixture.

Odds:

The bookies are backing England. They're 20/1 on with Unibet, who are offering Samoa at 15/2.

Verdict:

England by 12

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