England were forced to dig deep in an 18-17 victory over Samoa that will have left probable World Cup quarter-final opponents Fiji licking their lips.
A dominant final quarter saw Samoa’s 17-8 lead eventually overhauled when Danny Care crossed with seven minutes left for a try that was converted by Owen Farrell.
It was a night of personal triumph for Farrell, who eclipsed Jonny Wilkinson’s total of 1,179 to become the nation’s highest points scorer, but a poor team performance will have taken the shine off that achievement.
Samoa finally discovered their mojo in the climax to a disappointing group campaign and they fell metres short with one last do-or-die assault that if successful would have produced a first-ever victory in the fixture.
A lingering sense of injustice hung over an early decision – made once the conversion had been taken – to chalk off Duncan Paia’aua’s try for a hard-to-detect knock-on that would have propelled the underdogs 19-8 ahead.
Until this night in Lille, England had not conceded a try for 160 minutes but they were breached twice by Samoa wing Nigel Ah-Wong – and it could have been more.
Their only consistent weapon was the driving line-out and Fiji will have watched the events at Stade Pierre-Mauroy with interest, seeing how rattled Steve Borthwick’s side became when faced with an incisive, off-loading attack.
England’s pack made an early impact but it was the sharp handling of Farrell and Joe Marchant that led to their first try in the 10th minute as Manu Tuilagi motored forwards before sending Ollie Chessum over in the left corner.
Tuilagi tore through the midfield once again as Samoa continued to be picked apart at will with George Ford and Farrell dovetailing well and their next drive ended with a penalty from their captain that saw Wilkinson’s record finally broken.
Play became ragged and England suffered as a result, their sloppy handling allowing Samoa to attack and the Islanders showed skill to thread the ball to wing Ah-Wong for a classy try.
Blue shirts poured through gaps in the favourites’ porous defence and they were unpicked again when Lima Sopoaga hoisted a crossfield kick for Ah-Wong to produce an inch-perfect finish.
Nothing seemed to be going right for England as they infringed at a line-out but they enjoyed a stroke of luck when Paia’aua’s score off Alex Mitchell’s poor clearance kick was disallowed.
A sloppy Farrell pass intended for Tuilagi invited more pressure and after going through several phases in which the tryline was tested Samoa ended the spell with a Sopoaga penalty.
England were losing every moment and they chose to play their trump card by bringing on Marcus Smith at Ford’s expense with Farrell moving to fly-half.
They appeared to have scored when their pack dragged Samoa into the trenches but Chessum’s try was ruled out and then Marchant was denied because of a forward pass.
Farrell landed one penalty but the shot clock expired on a second attempt and England were thrown a lifeline when Tumua Manu was shown a yellow card for tackling Farrell in the air.
Pinned back by scrum after scrum, Samoa eventually cracked when replacement scrum-half Care raced through a large gap and once Farrell converted England were back in front.
A last-gasp attack by Samoa almost swept them over but excellent scramble defence kept them out and the dream of an upset was extinguished.