England out to avoid 'backwards step' against Samoa with one eye on World Cup quarter-finals

England are keen to build on their opening three wins at the World Cup against Samoa
©Photo Michael Steele - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

England go into their last pool stage match against Samoa already qualified for the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, but you can guarantee it is not a game that either team will be taking lightly.

"It’s an old school rugby game which will be brilliant, a physical battle up front and all around the park," second-row David Ribbans told TRU. "They [Samoa] pride themselves on their physicality but so do we. We are not going to take a backwards step."

This kind of examination from Samoa is exactly what England will want as they begin preparing for a last-eight tie in Marseille, and Saturday's meeting with the Pacific Islanders provides Steve Borthwick's side with the opportunity to put in a strong performance as they look to build further momentum going into the knockout stages.

"By no means is this tournament done for us; this is just the start," added Ribbans.

That should tell you all you need to know about England's mentality.

Ribbans - who will be playing his club rugby in France in 2023/24 for Toulon - also acknowledges the work of fitness coach Aled Walters as a reason why Borthwick's side won't be lacklustre against Samoa: "I think the team is in the best physical shape we’ve ever been in with the way we are running and the metres we are getting. Aled has been brilliant. We've obviously had TT [Tom Tombleson - England's S&C Coordinator] for years and between the two of them, they have been amazing. If Aled says we are going to go up a notch, then we will. 

"He demands so much of the boys and so does Steve and everyone has brought into the plan. We know we are going to come out better from it."

This is evident in England’s metres-made stats improving with every game, along with defenders beaten and tries scored. Their attack has been a focus for a long time and against Chile two weeks ago, it looked like it was beginning to come together.

That was of course with Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith operating at full-back. Borthwick has seen this as a way of getting the playmaker involved and despite an impressive outing in that aforementioned Chile game - where he scored two tries, made 148 metres and broke the gain line on 11 occasions, the 24-year-old has to settle for a place on the bench for this weekend.

While England's mentality and preparations do not seem to have wavered in the lead-up to Samoa, perhaps Borthwick's team selection also emphasises the point that his side mean business having named a similar starting XV to what we saw in their opening pool matches against Argentina and Japan.

Captain Owen Farrell has retained his place in the side for Saturday, rekindling his 10-12 combination with George Ford for the first time since the 2021 Six Nations.

Then with Freddie Steward and Jonny May returning in the back three, Joe Marchant has moved on to the wing with Henry Arundell - who scored a record-equalling five tries against Chile - not involved at all.

It is a very similar backline to the opening games just adjusted to fit Farrell, with him being the only change from the starting XV that faced Argentina four weeks ago.

"Owen has obviously been training with us the whole time," Ribbans added when reflecting on Farrell's return against Chile. "He has played over 100 games for England so we know what he can do. He has been champing at the bit to get back out there."

It is the view of some fans though, that if England are to advance to the latter stages of this tournament and indeed potentially win the competition, they need a player with the x-factor that the likes of Smith and Arundell have to unlock the stronger defences.

It had seemed that this weekend’s game against Samoa could have been a perfect chance to test exciting attacking players against a very physically strong side, but the England head coach has chosen to go with what is tried and tested at international level with the likes of Farrell - who could pass Jonny Wilkinson to become England's all-time leading Test points scorer on Saturday - and May.

"The fact all three of them can work together is amazing," Ribbans said when asked about Farrell, Ford and Smith. "As players, seeing them training every day, seeing them work together, their interlinking play, it is brilliant to have them. The better they play, it creates more competition within the team and that can only be a good thing."

Against Samoa, it will be the midfield axis of Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12 to start with, and Borthwick will hope his selections - like they have done so far this tournament - will prove any doubters wrong.

If not though, it will be interesting to see if Borthwick will unleash Smith once again and potentially turn to Arundell if England require a spark in the quarter-finals and possibly beyond.

On the other side of the coin, Samoa will be looking to prove a point in their last game of the World Cup and will be desperate to gain a historic victory, possibly the greatest their nation will have ever seen.

Saturday evening will hopefully be a thrilling contest with Samoa out to cause some World Cup drama by upsetting the odds, but considering how focused England seem, it will all be about building some momentum before heading south to Marseille.