LONDON, ENGLAND – Stuart Lancaster has rung the changes for England’s Saturday matchup against Samoa. Ben Youngs moves into the starting fifteen, joined by Ben Morgan, George Ford, and James Haskell. Billy Vunipola and Danny Care are not even in the match-day twenty-three, and have been released back to their clubs. Lancaster commented on the situation by ruminating “there are guys I have never dropped before who aren’t in the squad.” In response to cries for change, Lancaster has risen to the call. It remains to be seen how it will pay off.
The other major change is Owen Farrell moving to inside center. Part of this comes about as a direct result of Lancaster’s lack of alternative options; Kyle Eastmond didn’t pass a fitness test following his concussion, and Luther Burrell is not yet fully fit. As a result, Billy Twelvetrees will be standing ready as back-up, though the Gloucester utility back has yet to perform at his best this season. Farrell is known for taking command on the field, and questions have been raised about his ability to defer to his younger counterpart, Ford. However, Ford and Farrell formed a supremely effective pairing at age-group level in England colors, and combined to lead the U-20’s to a World Cup final in the past. If Lancaster wanted to experiment with two play-makers while keeping Farrell’s exceptional goal-kicking in his arsenal, the match against Samoa is the perfect time to do so.
One match-up to watch will be Youngs versus Kahn Fotuali’i. Fotuali’I arrived at Northampton last year hailed as the best scrum-half in world ruby. While he has played well for Northampton in spurts, he seems to have lost the inspiration that saw him praised so highly at Ospreys. It’s possible that the 32 year old is merely slowing down, but he will have a desperate battle on his hands. Youngs has been given a second life in England colors by Danny Care’s recent struggles. Though it seemed that Care was comfortably secure in his berth, Youngs can put down a major marker for the Six Nations and World Cup if he gets England on the front-foot early. Richard Wigglesworth enters the squad for the first time since the 2013 tour to Argentina.
There were late questions whether this match would be played at all. Samoan players threatened to strike because of long-standing issues with their own union. The Samoan Rugby Union twice failed to attend meetings set up in attempts to resolve the dispute, but Samoa captain David Lemi claims that the conflict will not impact Samoa’s preparation. Former Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu claimed that players were close to boycotting the last World Cup. There have been continual questions about money allocation over the past decade. Fuimaono-Sapolu claimed “we hear stories about how the union fundraised six million dolalrs at the last World Cup and were going to audit and show everyone where the money went- and then there’s nothing…a lot of boys are flying to Samoa on their own money.” Samoa’s Prime Minister did not help matters by calling his own players “spoilt children.” If the dispute continues, it runs the risk of harming Samoa’s first home match-up against the All Blacks. It is impossible to blame the Samoan players, who have continually been put in impossible situations by their home union. World Rugby (the IRB rebranded this week) needs to step in and resolve matters quickly before it harms the integrity of the game in a historic stronghold.