England gathered its senses from 17-8 down against Samoa and avoided one of the greatest Rugby World Cup upsets by edging a thrilling pool match 18-17 this morning (NZT).
Pool D was already won by quarterfinal-bound England which wanted to maintain momentum into the knockout stage next week. But a sloppy, second-rate performance was exploited by a fired-up Manu Samoa, who pulled out one more final trick to almost complete a shock win.
Wing Neria Foma’i was freed by fullback Duncan Paia’aua and was flying toward the tryline. He was eight meters from history when he was brought down from behind by England’s oldest back, replacement scrumhalf Danny Care. Foma’i’s pop-up pass was knocked on and the chance died for Samoa.
Samoa scored two converted tries and had two other tries ruled out in a second quarter in which England was blown away. Somehow, Samoa led at halftime by only six points.
The second half belonged to England, but it struggled to turn its dominance into points. Two of its own tries were canceled and it finally produced a clever try off a scrum by Care beside the posts in the 73rd minute.
The easy conversion was nailed by Owen Farrell, who had a penalty kick ruled out because he took too long on the night he became England’s highest point-scorer.
Care’s fresher legs then spared some embarrassment for England, which will likely face Fiji in the quarterfinals next Sunday in Marseille.
England started like a pool winner and a team that had an 8-0 record against Samoa. A lineout maul was driven more than 20 meters. Freddie Steward and Joe Marchant set up a try for lock Ollie Chessum. Farrell missed the conversion but slotted a penalty to take the England all-time points record from Jonny Wilkinson after 22 years.
Then England relaxed.
A pass by Jamie George was intercepted, and Samoa, in a flash, seemed to be attacking from all over Stade Pierre Mauroy, finishing with Steven Luatua feeding Nigel Ah Wong to score in the corner.
Sopoaga used a kicking tee gifted by an Englishman to make the conversion. He lost the tee he’d owned for 18 years during the win over Chile.
Only 8-7 down, Samoa’s confidence was ignited and unleashed waves of spectacular attacks of loops and breaks, outrageous passes and offloads, and smashing carries.
Steward saved a try when he stripped hooker Sama Malolo on the tryline, but Steward was beaten by inches when center Danny Toala’s cross-kick flew perfectly to Ah Wong who amazingly planted the ball inside the deadball line before he stepped on it.
Sopoaga’s extras made it 14-8 in the 29th and Samoa was still just warming up.
England was in panic stations and was fortunate that Samoa’s next two tries were ruled out by the barest of margins.
A try by Paia’aua was rubbed off by a knock-on that wasn’t obvious even on replays, and Ah Wong had a hat trick try canceled by a foot in touch.
Halftime arrived with England having hardly touched the ball for more than 20 minutes.
England had Farrell to thank in the new half. His poor pass was counterattacked by Samoa, but he tracked back to pull off a try-saving tackle on Paia’aua.
Samoa still got a Sopoaga penalty out of it to lead 17-8 and then seemed to relax while England began to hold the ball longer and rebuild confidence through phases.
An England score seemed imminent.
But Chessum was denied a second try by double movement and Marchant’s score was denied because of a forward pass.
Farrell’s second penalty closed the gap to 17-11 with a quarter to go, and he made a third penalty kick minutes later, but it wasn’t registered because he exceeded the shot clock, the first time that’s happened in the tournament.
Samoa was on a warning for off-the-ball incidents, and center Tumua Manu was yellow-carded for tackling Farrell in the air in the 66th.
England used the man advantage ruthlessly. Off scrum ball in front of the posts, England got Marcus Smith to distract Samoa one way while Care attacked the other way and scored untouched for Farrell’s match-winning conversion.
Owen Farrell will captain England beside flyhalf George Ford with Tom Curry back from suspension to face Samoa at the Rugby World Cup on Sunday.
England has won Pool D with three straight wins and is gearing up for the quarter-finals next week after a two-week break. The side has 13 of the 15 who started against Argentina on the opening weekend, when Curry was sent off after three minutes and Ford kicked England to a 27-10 victory.
The only changes are Farrell and Jonny May. May and fellow wing Joe Marchant have kept out Henry Arundell, who scored a record-tying five tries against Chile.
Farrell has started at 12 only once before under coach Steve Borthwick, in his first game in charge at the start of the Six Nations. Farrell was outside Marcus Smith. Ford and Farrell have not started together since the 2021 Six Nations. Smith is in the reserves.
Farrell requires two more points to become England’s all-time leading point-scorer, and end Jonny Wilkinson’s 22-year reign.
Samoa picked a new tight five and four new backs including former All Black Lima Sopoaga.
The Samoans have a long-shot mathematical chance of qualifying for the quarterfinals but have a shot at an historic win over England and automatic qualification for the 2027 Rugby World Cup.
Hooker Sama Malolo has a second career start and first in the tournament after three maul tries in three appearances off the bench.
Captain Michael Ala’alatoa and Jordan Lay fill out the front row and Brian Alainu’u’ese and Sam Slade go into the second row.
The locks in the 28-22 loss to Japan last week, British-based pair Theo McFarland and Steven Luatua, have been moved into the back row alongside Fritz Lee.
Sopoaga played the last 25 minutes of the opener against Chile then was sidelined by injury. He replaces Christian Leali’ifano and partners Jonathan Taumateine in the halves for the first time since the 17-13 warmup defeat to Ireland in Bayonne.
Danny Toala replaces the injured D’Angelo Leuila at inside center and Samoa has new wings in Neria Foma’i and Nigel Ah Wong.
Played 8, England 8
England $1.08, Samoa $7, Draw $31
How to watch
Sky Sport 1 from 4.45am Sunday
England 45 Samoa 14
England: Freddie Steward, Joe Marchant, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Alex Mitchell; Ben Earl, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes, Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, Dan Cole, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Theo Dan, Joe Marler, Kyle Sinckler, George Martin, Billy Vunipola, Danny Care, Marcus Smith, Ollie Lawrence.
Samoa: Duncan Paia’aua, Nigel Ah-Wong, Tumua Manu, Danny Toala, Neria Foma’i, Lima Sopoaga, Jonathan Taumateine; Steven Luatua, Fritz Lee, Theo McFarland, Brian Alainu’u’ese, Sam Slade, Michael Ala’alatoa (captain), Sama Malolo, Jordan Lay. Reserves: Seilala Lam, James Lay, Paul Alo-Emile, Sootala Fa’aso’o, Alamanda Motuga, Melani Matavao, Christian Leali’ifano, Miracle Failagi.
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