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Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Friday, 19 November 2010

England's Matt Banahan handed big chance against Samoa

Matt Banahan off-loads for club sidde Bath (top left), shows off his tattoos (bottom left), passes out of the tackle for England against the Australia Barbarians, Alesana Tuilagi carries for Samoa (top right) and Seilala Mapusua tackles Wales' Andy Powell
Matt Banahan (centre and top and bottom left) has been called up to face the block-busting Samoans, typified by powerhouse winger Alesana Tuilagi (top right) and centre Seilala Mapusua (bottom right tackling Wales' Andy Powell)

Jeremy Guscott
By Jeremy Guscott
Ex-England and Lions star

Samoa may have a reputation as one of world rugby's most physical teams, but England have nothing to fear on that front on Saturday.

Samoa used to have a physical edge - playing them was almost scary - but every top international side is as big and strong these days, and the visitors have no-one the size of monster England centre Matt Banahan in their backline.

That's not to say they don't have players who pack a punch - 6ft 1in 18st winger Alesana Tuilagi is a familiar figure thanks not only to his exploits for Leicester but also at Twickenham back in 2005.

But at 6ft 7in and 18st, the giant Banahan towers over his opposite number Seilala Mapusua, while England inside centre Shontayne Hape is no shrinking violet either.

Banahan is one of four changes made by Martin Johnson.

He has made as few as possible because he wants to keep continuity after England's fine win over Australia, but he also wants to look after the likes of Lewis Moody and Mike Tindall, who are not getting any younger, and it is an ideal time to rest them.

In addition to Banahan, the other new faces are James Haskell, David Wilson and Hendre Fourie, all physical specimens, but the most eye-catching selection is that of the huge Bath wing at outside centre.


Having played outside centre for both Bath and England I never thought I'd see one of my successors be someone who is 6ft 7in and 18st, but nothing surprises me anymore in modern rugby.

These guys are appearing everywhere - look at new Wales wing George North. He's only 18 but he's 6ft 4in and getting on for 17st. They are monsters.

Last year, Banahan topped an England power test on a weights circuit by a "significant margin" from runner-up Haskell, with Wilson not far behind, and the Bath man is the one with the biggest chance to really make an impression.

The Jersey-born player, who has a Spitfire tattooed down his left side in remembrance of those who suffered during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands in WWII, has played four of his eight games for Bath this season in the centres.

But it is noticeable that the four when he has played in midfield have come in Bath's less important matches or when they were facing weaker opposition.

I quite like the fact that Johnno is taking the chance to look at Banahan as an option at outside centre, provided he is used effectively.

Bath assistant coach Brad Davis told BBC Points West recently that once Banahan "dominates the contact he's got a really soft pair of hands and can create offloads".

Davis added that Banahan has shown he has a "great pass" and can take "two or three defenders with him", but I have to point out he's not Sonny Bill Williams - the New Zealander is a unique player who is blessed with some totally original skills.

Banahan is a completely different player - he's a bit more direct and doesn't have the range of skills at the moment.

However, we know he can offload and is able to bash through players to create space, and he is also deceptively quick.

Chris Ashton on his way to scoring a wonder try against Australia
In-form England wing Ashton could profit from Banahan's offloading ability

If the likes of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto run support lines off him they will get the offloads - you'd like to think that's what they've been working on in training.

But Banahan has to go looking for the ball because this could be his one opportunity to stake a claim for a regular place in the England squad.

Last year, I suggested he need to get himself much fitter and he's done that. He's a stone lighter and he's quicker and stronger, but he's got to take his chance because lots of people, including me, thought Delon Armitage would be the option at outside centre instead.

Tindall will probably remain England's first-choice 13, but if Banahan has a great game you'd be looking at him securing a bench spot because he can cover wing and centre, although having said that Armitage can play both of these positions, and full-back as well.

Armitage can feel a little bit aggrieved he is not in the XV for Saturday but it is a huge chance for Banahan because England are playing really well at the moment.

Samoa are a much better side than they used to be. They have always been physical but they are more technical than before, they now have a clear gameplan and a set piece they can rely on more than they used to be able to.

Tuilagi's try against Ireland was incredibly well worked with very direct running lines, as you'd expect from Samoa.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I have noticed recently that Samoa no longer have the physical edge that they used to have - other sides' players are bigger and stronger these days across the board.

When I played we were small and the Samoans were the same size then as they are today. They were much bigger and much stronger than us and they did put in some big hits.

There's no need for England to go mad and play the all-court style they showed against New Zealand and Australia

You still see that physicality from the likes of Tuilagi but you see it just as much from other sides now, gone are the days when they had that physical, almost scary edge.

That's not to suggest they have gone soft though - they are fully committed, hard-hitting, full-on runners, no doubt about it.

Tuilagi will love the physical encounters and I wouldn't advise anyone, no matter how big they are, to run into someone who's 6ft 1in and the best part of 18st.

Nothing suggests England won't continue in the good form they've found recently but it will take longer to gel on Saturday because of the changes.

There is a danger that Banahan will not be up to speed defensively at 13, and there have also been three changes in the pack, plus a change of captain.

There's no need for England to go mad and play the all-court style they showed against New Zealand and Australia.

I will be interested to see if they catch and drive from line-outs more, whether they pick and drive more, whether they go route one more than they have been doing.

If they tighten up a bit I think they could win this game comfortably.

Jeremy Guscott was talking to BBC Sport's James Standley.

You can follow Jerry on Twitter at

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see also
Jeremy Guscott Q&A
16 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
Banahan braced for centre switch
17 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
Johnson pleased by England grit
20 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
England change four against Samoa
17 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
England can overpower electric Aussies
12 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union
England 35-18 Australia
13 Nov 10 |  Rugby Union

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