Lima. Tuilagi. Fanolua.
Synonymous with the image of size; of power; of sheer physical force, these names instil fear in even the most vociferously gallant armchair supporter, let alone those charged with the duty of physically attacking the try-line of these Sergeants of the South Islands. The nom-de-guerre Brian ‘Bonecruncher’ Lima wasn’t gained through a reputation for cuddling his opposition. Lima exemplifies the physicality and power that has historically been brought to the green-bladed table by the Samoans, a tribute to not only their natural genetic physiological size but also their committed enjoyment to the game, characterised and expressed most vividly through the 7s circuit.
The question, however, is how potent a force has Samoa become in the 15-man game? Beyond the front-line rifle fire of the Bonecruncher, there is a deeper menace to the Samoans’ artillery: an increasing understanding of the 15-a-side version of the game and a greater ability to structure their play to a pre-determined game plan. It is this development in recent years – aided and abetted by an influx of Samoans playing regularly in the English Premiership – that has made the Samoans a greater force than the entertaining-but-ineffective thrashing-boys they once were. At no time was this more obvious than one passionate night in October 2003 in the enclosed embrace of Telstra Dome, Melbourne in the last Rugby World Cup. Faced with an England team seated firmly on their throne as the top-ranked team in world rugby, the Samoans constructed and implemented a game plan that not only nullified the attacking threat of strikers such as Jason Robinson, Ben Cohen, Josh Lewsey and Jonny Wilkinson, but indeed played with such aplomb as to stretch the England defence, trample on their own game plan and nearly complete the shock of the tournament.
So great was the effort in nearly overcoming the greatest obstacle in international rugby at the time that Trevor Leota – having made himself unavailable for the World Cup through fear of loss of earnings from his club Wasps – offered to catch the next flight out to Australia to join in what had overnight become a team to be reckoned with that was now viewed as a serious force in world rugby.
It is perhaps this decision not to allow Leota to join the RWC 2003 squad that best epitomised the new Samoan attitude. No one man was greater than the team. In the era of professionalism only those willing and able to contribute and commit to a visionary future would be permitted to play in the Blue shirt. Look back 5 years and the Samoan management would have jumped at the chance to include a man of Leota’s 21 stone stature in the team, with the major purpose of intimidating the opposition, but with the knowledge that little else would be gained in terms of a serious result.
The question is, now faced with a similar group in RWC 2007 with both South Africa and England, can Samoa once again organise themselves and play a solid, creative, but structured 80 mins of Test rugby that can challenge one of the world’s top teams for an unexpected but long-overdue major victory?
The structure has been implemented. The desire, commitment and skill has never been lacking. Now perhaps just the belief can take them to the promised land of a world cup quarter final. Obviously, the odds are against them but would you venture a bet that these South Sea giants won’t maybe, just maybe produce a spectacle that will create a new chapter in World Cup Rugby…?