Sitting up on the freezing media gantry at Twickenham last weekend, as Paul Williams crossed for Samoa’s early second half try and the men in blue pumped their fists into the air, Twickenham fell into silence. Everyone knows about the Samoan power and physicality, but for them to go ahead against England? At Twickenham? Surely that wasn’t possible.
Sustaining a lead however was a step too far, and as England came back and scored two tries, stretching their lead to 26-8, there was only ever going to be one winner. However, those who were waiting for the scoreboard to smash 50 points were no doubt left unsettled. Samoa’s second score was a testament to their commitment and spirit. And even then, coming back wasn’t enough to satisfy the despondent Mo Schwalger and Seilala Mapusua during the post-match press conference. This in their eyes was a huge opportunity squandered, just like the week before against Ireland in Dublin. Close they may have been, but there was still an obvious gulf between the two sides. Playing at home benefited Ireland and England massively in those tight games, an asset that Samoa never experience against the World’s leading rugby nations.
The most remarkable aspect of Samoan rugby is the amount of talent they possess for such a small nation. The last recorded population is 179,000. To put this into context, that figure is less than the whole population of York. Yet think through the names of players past and present that have emerged from the island over the years; Pat Lam, Brian Lima and Trevor Leota to name a few all made their mark on the English and International game. As for today’s contingent, there are the likes of Mapusua, Schwalger, George Stowers, Sailosi Tagicakibau and David Lemi. Add to that the Tuilagi dynasty at Leicester, and that’s seven more quality players. And this is before mentioning those with Samoan connections who have gone onto represent the All Blacks, such as Mils Muliaina, Jerry Collins and Isaia Toeava.
The thought of putting those players together in an all-star team is mouth-watering. In addition, the lengths that Samoan rugby players go to in playing professional rugby are sometimes forgotten, plying their trade thousands of miles away in alien conditions to their home country. This distance from home was never more painful for the Samoan contingent abroad than after the Tsunami last year, in which 189 people were killed and 3000 left homeless. From a personal perspective, the news was horrible to hear, given how strong a Samoan connection there is at London Irish where Mapusua, Tagicakibau, Stowers and Premiership stalwart Elvis Seveali’i are all based. Their resilience on the pitch proved to be just as impeccably strong off it.
They possess so much character and talent, that you wonder how far they can go as a rugby playing force. And this is where the problem lies. Taking England as opposition for an example, Samoa have played them six times in history. Three of these matches have come during World Cups, with the other three matches being played at Twickenham over the course of 15 years, and that’s including the game last Saturday. In the same space of time, England have played New Zealand nearly 20 times.
The experience of Samoa’s best players competing in the Aviva Premiership, Magners League, Top 14 and in Super rugby has helped develop their ability at the top level, and their experience of big game situations. But the problem is that whilst individually they are getting better, they do not get the chance to play together as a team against the best opposition as often as they should. The stories of Samoan teams meeting up a couple of days before matches, having only a couple of training sessions, and then taking the field without any real cohesion or game plan against sides who have been training together for weeks or months, are unfortunately all too common. This Autumn International series, things have been slightly better. The Samoans had two weeks preparation time before facing Ireland last weekend, and the advantage of having so many European based players has helped them prepare better than in the past. Pundits and fans often refer to the likes of Mapusua and Tagicakibau as being the best players in their position in Europe, possibly in the World. However, without confronting the World’s best teams consistently at International level, there is no way of determining whether those opinions are realistic.
It is important to stress that with Samoa, we are not talking about a side that are new to World rugby. They have qualified now for the last six World Cups, reaching the quarter-finals three times. Add to this their status as 2010 Pacific Nations Cup champions, and there really should be no reason why they are not entitled to face the top teams. If England were to travel to Aipa Park, the experience would be unforgettable not only for all the Samoan people, but for both sets of players. If the objective of the IRB is to make the game as global as possible, then a gamble needs to be taken. When will come the time when rather than Samoa touring the British Isles, the top teams head to the northern Samoan island of Aipa on tour?
The safe option financially for the IRB is obviously to keep on hosting events such as the World Cup in countries where there is already a solid media and supporter interest. Money is crucial to the future development of World rugby, but keeping all of the cash in one pot for the big nations is just going to stop its popularity spreading all over the world. This isn’t a call for a radical overhaul of the international fixture list, but more a suggestion that at least once a year, a Tier One side has to play against one of the Pacific Island nations in their home country. Is it really fair that the people of Samoa can only see their team play against Fiji, Tonga or Japan on their home turf? The euphoria if for example the All Blacks came to town would be monumental. And it is not impossible. If anything after the Tsunami last year, it is no more than the Samoan people deserve.
by Ben Coles