Samoa’s potential will never be realised unless the IRB mellows

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

13 thoughts on “Samoa’s potential will never be realised unless the IRB mellows

  1. Ummmm. Keeping all the money in one big pot? How do you think Samoa got to this point? Where they are capable of matching England at Twickenham? The IRB has been pouring money into strategic investment into Samoa. A figure believed to be in the region of £300,000 a year. This article reads a little about the nostalgia you have for older players and romantic ideals than it does about the IRB’s investment plans.

  2. you may want to change that last line to ‘no more than the Samoan people deserve’ ;)

    And I agree with the idiot (I do have a habit of agreeing with idiots). Whilst I like the theory of giving more to the PI’s the fact is that by playing away from home these teams, iirc, get more money from the home nations than if it were a home game

    Adding yet more fixtures to an already crowded rugby fixture list sounds dangerous – already there are too many games being played requiring our top players. Whilst the PI’s deserve better for their performances and players we also need to look at the stark realities of our game

    Will developing Fiji, Samoa etc, with their tiny populations grow the game? They may be close to tier 1 – and with a regular training regime rather than a couple of sessions they could well be drilled enough to be tier 1 with regards performances… but how much will they grow rugby?

    The likes of Spain, Portugal, Russia, Germany in Europe, USA, Canada even Brazil and Mexico in the Americas bring with them far more by way of population, sponsorship, global interest etc.

    I understand that Samoa et all ‘deserve’ better – but if we are to grow the game as much as possible are they really who we should be focussing on?

  3. The “big pot” comment was more of a dig at the IRB’s failure to take more financial gambles in their global promotion of the game. The Japan World Cup bid is a perfect example of this. It would have revolutionised the game today, yet they went for one of the safer nations in New Zealand, and ironically are set to make a loss.

    Samoa got to this point through right due to their performances in the World Cup. Their rugby is attractive on many levels, and reaching three quarter finals in the World Cup entitles them to play the big sides.

    Could they have beaten England? Absolutely. If they had nearly half the time to prepare as England get each season the results would be very different.

    I’m not saying the IRB puts no money into Samoan rugby, that would be ignorant. My point is that any investment should go towards a home game being played against at least one Tier One side annually.

  4. “My point is that any investment should go towards a home game being played against at least one Tier One side annually.”

    What benefit would be gained from that? For either the PI country or rugby as a whole?

  5. Nick,

    Because why should any nation not be able to see their team play on their home turf? It’s like me turning to you and saying Ireland should never play New Zealand in Ireland because they’ve neither beaten them. Every top 20 nation should be able to play other top 20 teams at home. It would be a historical cultural event for all of Samoa. Financially it might not be hugely beneficial, but it’s part of the spirit of the game.

    I’m completely with you on the expansion of the game in Europe and in the Americas. There’s certainly more financial gain for investing in those parts of the world. But that doesn’t mean the PIs can just be left behind. It’s a case of looking after the already established rugby nations. Why don’t teams when they go on Southern Hemisphere tours stop off en route to NZ and Australia? It’s not asking for much.

  6. I’ll admit playing Samoa in Samoa isn’t financially ideal to put it bluntly. The upside is purely in the interests of the people. I used the idea of the top 20 merely as a concept given that Samoa are 12th in the World.

    With that in mind, as you rightly pointed out regarding the Pacific Nations Cup and I noted in the article, Samoa need to face different sides at home than those who play in the PNC. The Pacific Nations Cup is a great tournament but when was the last time they faced any other countries at home, discounting the Junior All Blacks and the New Zealand Maori?

    With regards to another fixture, rather than adding another week of International rugby to the calendar, why not merely add a game against Fiji, Tonga or Samoa in? Looking at Wales Summer Tour this year, they could have swapped one of the New Zealand tests for one against one of the PI nations. Not only would it have been a special occasion for Wales travelling to the Samoa for only the third time ever, but it would also have added an extra edge to the New Zealand match a week later.

  7. It’s not to do with beating – it’s to do with simple economics. It is worth New Xealand playing Ireland for a number of financial reasons, and rugby reasons to do with improving their squad etc. What is to be gained by a team taking on Samoa in their own backyard?

    That is not to say I wouldn’t like to see it for the sake of the Samoan people, just that I don’t really see the upside

    Why the arbitrary top 20? That makes for a HUGE amount of travelling, makes for more games and a potential massive number of missmatches.

    If Samoa wanted to try organise home friendlies they could – but they would have huge problems – the fact is that tests in New Zealand or Europe actually better suit their players travel wise. Against Ireland 9 of their team play in either England or France. They also need to provide a reason for other countries to play them, which I struggle to see happening.

    They do, iirc, play other top 20 sides in their own tournament, The pacific Nations cup, which has Fiji, Samoa, Japan, and Tonga. So they DO get home games. In fact samoa hosted it this year

    As for not asking for much? It could well be… the financial aspect of another game includes travel costs, additional match fees for players etc and of course the risk of injury in an already over long and over populated season.

    From a welsh perspective Adam Jones taking on Fiji in what was a nothing game had my heart in my mouth. I was gutted we drew but tbh I was more concerned about injuries to key players than I was the result.

  8. The “edge” that I didn’t brilliantly explain relates to what you said about over exposure. I see your point about using two match series for development of young players, but for me, a match between Wales and New Zealand would have a lot more significance if it was a one-off. There is nothing more frustrating than a 1-1 drawn test series.

    Sure, you might not get the same challenge in terms of ability facing a Samoan side in Aipa, but the atmosphere would be pretty intense for those youngsters learning their trade at International level. And judging from the Fiji game last Friday night, who says the Islanders couldn’t provide the likes of Biggar and co with a stern enough examination at Test level?

    I accept that financially it is unrealistic. But that is what has to change. I’m only asking for one game a year to be played there!

  9. How will it have added an edge?

    From a Wales perspective the additional New Zealand test was important as it allowed players a 2nd run at understanding what competing at that level was like – look at the improvements made. It’s of my opinion that the reason the 3N are continually amongst the best is how often they play each other – they constantly have to up their game as they are playing the best in the world.

    It also allowed development in a way that playing Samoa wouldn’t. McCusker made a massive break through into international rugby, Biggar got a start against a top tier nation, Jon Davies learned what it is to take on New Zealand on their own patch. This is development Wales wouldn’t have had with just 1 test and our ‘first team’.

    People have called for a return to ‘tours’ of old, taking on other clubs as well as countries. How many more cries for more games will there be before we decide there are simply too many games. Already the sheer scale of injuries is huge, start taking on the hardhitting pacific islanders for no financial gain, little development opportunity for the travelling country and a difficult journey even for their own players and their are massive issues.

    I understand the feeling behind the wish for it to happen, I would like it in an ideal world to. but the harsh realities are that there is a huge amount of potential downside and little to no potential upside to the travelling team, not much of one to the home team and it simply serves to make a few thousand home fans happy

    And let’s not forget the very real issue of over exposure to the international game limiting demand, no matter what the IRB says

  10. I was in Fiji in 1969, when the Wales team dropped in for a Match in Suva on their way back from an NZ visit. The stand would have only held about 5,000 then. It was worth them being there, even if no profit and I had a good night out with them!!

  11. I understand the financial and logistical burden playing a game in one of the pacific island countries would for the bigger nations. It would however be as big as a RWC final in that county for the All Blacks, Wallabies or England to visit and play there.

    One more idea I heard someone talk about a while ago, a combined Pacific Islander team. If they played together a lot they would be a formidable force for sure.

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