IIt was hard to believe Matt Parish at the time, but the Samoa head coach’s promise following their humiliation against England four weeks ago proved quite prophetic. “We’re going to build from this,” he told St James’ Park after watching his side lose 60-6 in the opening game of the tournament. “We have a group of guys who are determined to get something done at this World Cup.”
Less than a month after a day when all was well for England and all seemed to be going badly for Samoa, the two nations meet at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday with a place in next Saturday’s World Cup final stakes.
It was quite a turnaround for Samoa, who caused an upset last weekend by beating Tonga to reach the last four for the first time. But things have been smoother for the hosts with convincing wins at every stage, most recently the 46-6 win against Papua New Guinea in the quarter-finals.
Unsurprisingly, confidence is high that the hosts can reach a first home final since 1995. “We’re just worried about ourselves, not them,” says England striker Victor Radley. “They are going to be stronger from day one, but we are going to be stronger too. They have a talented squad and it will take 17 tough Englishmen to stop them. Luckily that is what we have.
There is no doubt that circumstances played a role on opening day. The Samoa side had only trained together twice heading into this match against England, with all six players who featured in the NRL Grand Final arriving late at camp. “I don’t think I’m speaking out of place when I say they were out to celebrate after the grand final in Australia,” said Samoa assistant coach and Castleford Tigers head coach Lee Radford. “We knew we would be a bit behind. Not so far of course, but since then we have grown.
There will also be tactical differences to watch, with Samoa identifying the speed of the ruck – or lack thereof – as a major factor in why they were punished so harshly at Newcastle. While most of the Samoan squad played in Australia, England identified the ruck as a place where they could find joy in Newcastle and they succeeded.
“What shocked the NRL boys was the pace and speed of that ruck,” Radford said. “We had players raising their hands and apologizing for infractions, but in reality they should have done a bit more. We won’t make that mistake again on Saturday.
Radford’s insight and knowledge of the England team will be vital. But England have their own take on Samoan stars, including full-back Joseph Sua’ali’i, who is a Radley team-mate at the Sydney Roosters. The 19-year-old, along with Penrith’s Jarome Luai, may be key for Samoa to stun the hosts on Saturday afternoon.
“He’s a monster,” Radley said. “Everyone says players are once in a generation, but he really is, and we’ll have to do some work on him. We’ll deal with that though.
But England have their own stars and it’s hard to single out a player for particular praise given how well Shaun Wane’s side have acquitted themselves. England have scored 242 points in four games and conceded just 34.
But this is their first real test – a Samoa team that’s rust-free from four weeks ago. Six England players reached the final five years ago, including Salford center Kallum Watkins.
“The group that played the final in 2017 is very useful to us,” he said. “This experience and this heartbreak will help us prepare for what we hope will be a huge two weeks.” Tom Burgess is another who was on the beaten side 6-0 by Australia in Brisbane. “You always draw on your past experiences and this World Cup final is something that I see as a missed opportunity,” he said. “That’s a determining factor for me.”
A crowd approaching 45,000 will be at the Emirates Stadium to see if Wane’s side can deliver. Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say England expect it.
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