'It's hard to put into words what it means to play for Samoa' - Mapusua speaks out on the strike row
Tom Hamilton
November 19, 2014
Seilala Mapusua watches on during the 2011 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images

"There is no other Manu anywhere; Here I come completely prepared" reads the third and fourth lines of Samoa's war dance, the Siva Tau, and therein lies the crux of their recent struggle.

Few have given more blood and brawn for the Samoan cause than the old master Seilala Mapusua. He is revered in England from his time with London Irish, in Japan where he is currently playing for Kamaishi Seawaves and back in his motherland for whom he played for on 26 occasions. Mapusua has experienced both sides of the Samoan rugby coin, he watched the highs of the 1991 Western Samoa triumph over Wales on his father's lap in Wellington - the 11-year-old Mapusua remembers being surprised by seeing his father and his similar sage-like friends sitting there with tears streaming down his face - he started their memorable win over Australia in the build-up to the 2011 World Cup but then experienced the sheer frustration and powerlessness of the tournament itself.

While the current Samoan players threatened to boycott Saturday's game against England, it is a familiar story for Mapusua; that feeling of blinding frustration and being the victims of wrongdoing.

The 2011 World Cup started on a high for Mapusua and his team-mates. The journey from their hotel in Apia to the airport where they were flying to New Zealand should have taken 40 minutes. It took four hours.

During his London Irish days © Getty Images

"The streets were lined with people from town all the way to the airport," Mapusua told ESPN. "We were going along at a snail's pace in the back of pick-up trucks. The love shown by the people was incredible and we had kids throwing their lunch money into the cars saying 'that's for the World Cup'. It was so humbling.

"I will keep it with me until the day I die. It was a special moment for me and the love we felt from the people was amazing. It still gives me goose bumps now talking about it. It was one of the highlights of my career."

But then came the brutal reality of the World Cup. They were a good side and had a chance of progressing through their group but their set-up was dismal. In an interview with captain Mahonri Schwalger in the aftermath of the World Cup he spoke of them turning up to training only to find there were no balls and how they had to foot their own plane fares to Samoa and New Zealand. What made it worse was the Samoan people raised millions of tala to help get the team to the World Cup; that money vanished.

"It was a difficult time," Mapusua said. "It was tough because we went into the tournament feeling good especially after coming off the win against Australia. We believed we had a great opportunity and we had enough fire power in our team to make a push at the World Cup. With what Mo came out and said, there were a lot of things going against us and there were a lot of issues we had to deal with that teams and professional players shouldn't have to go through. When players come into camp you want their sole focus to be on playing rather than having to book flights.

"That wasn't the reason for us losing games, we lost to good South African and Welsh teams but when you are in that environment you don't want any distractions. Your sole focus should be on the rugby which is why I believe the boys are doing what they are doing now. There are a few players left from that World Cup and come August and September next year, when there is pressure on the boys, they don't want a repeat of 2011."

"It's hard to put into words what it means to play for Samoa but we refer to them as 'the people's team' and that's the highest honour you can have in your rugby career"

Three years on, the wounds are still gaping. Mapusua is loath to point fingers but there is clearly a breakdown in dialogue between the Samoan Rugby Union - its chairman is the Prime Minister of Samoa - and the players. When the players spoke out about their present misgivings - they claim they hear about team selections on social media and that coaches are being denied a team selection free of outside influence - the Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi responded by saying their cries for help were the "thinking of little kids".

"It is sad to see it is like a cycle," Mapusua said. "We tried to break it back in 2011 but it's reared its ugly head again. The boys see no other option and nothing's come of it. It's sad they have been pushed to this. It can't slip under the rug again after Saturday's match. The boys and the fans deserve it.

"We just need to get everyone around the same table and to be able to get some dialogue going over how we can move forward. Everything's playing the waiting game to see who turns up but there won't be a quick-fix solution. It won't be sorted over one meeting, the main thing is to be able to sit down and work through the problems for the benefit of Samoan rugby so we can move forward."

Samoa's Seilala Mapusua leads the charge, South Africa v Samoa, Pretoria, June 22, 2013
© Getty Images

There are glimmers of light amid the confusing doom. The formation of the Pacific Islands Player Association will help. Mapusua is the representative for Samoa and sits alongside Fiji's Deacon Manu, Tonga's Hale T-Pole and the International Rugby Players' Association's representative Josh Blackie. Mapusua hopes they will grow in stature and clout but it is all with a view to improving the future generations of Manu Samoa players with education over what it takes to be a professional rugby player from an early age.

"A lot of these boys come straight from village life and you have to understand the Island cultures where it's not just you and your family but it is you, your family, your extended family and most of the village. A lot of these boys get put under pressure money wise when it comes to doing things for their family whether it be weddings or funerals. They have gone from not earning anything to earning a lot and they are not sure what to do. It's not something that is necessarily taught in their households growing up."

The future generations will benefit from great statesmen like Mapusua but the immediate attention is on Saturday's match at Twickenham. Samoa boast a wonderful array of talent and if the various grievances are solved, their potential is frightening. For Mapusua, his days as a Samoan player are now gone but the pride is just the same. He will watch his team-mates and friends take to the Twickenham turf with collective hopes and prayers for a better and more straightforward future for Manu Samoa.

"Playing for Samoa meant the world for me. I represented myself, my village and my people. Any famous person who has Samoan roots is jumped on with people claiming someone like The Rock [actor and former WWE wrestler Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson] is their cousin. To wear the Samoan jersey which is held in the highest regard in Samoa and I think back to the players who wore it in the past and the 1991 World Cup when we were put on the map. Every Samoan can remember where they were when we beat Wales. It's hard to put into words what it means to play for Samoa but we refer to them as 'the people's team' and that's the highest honour you can have in your rugby career."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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