Samoa out to make an impression
August 28, 2007
"If you set out from first principles to design a rugby player, the outcome would most probably be a Samoan." Huw Richards reports
Wales may have been delighted when Samoa won the Pacific qualifying group and so landed themselves at a safe distance in World Cup pool A - memories of those defeats in the 1991 and 1999 tournaments remain acute - but it is a fair bet their pleasure was not shared by England.
They'll take on the Samoans for the third time in the last four World Cup pool stages, with their uppermost memory the shock administered by the islanders at Melbourne, where the eventual World champions fell behind early and were immensely grateful to escape with a 35-22 win.
In retrospect that and the quarter-final against Wales benefited England, ensuring they were fully tested on their way to the sharp end of the tournament, but the considerably less assured class of 2007 will not welcome a similar scare.
Argentina may have displaced them as the most formidable of the World Cup's underdogs, but Samoa's record proclaims them the most consistent with quarter-final places in 1991 and 1995, a playoff place in 1999 and that serious pitch at a major shock four years ago.
They continue to be the dominant force in their region. Topping the World Cup qualifiers was followed earlier this year by a third place, ahead of Fiji and Tonga, in the Pacific Nations Cup, where they gave the invincible Junior All Blacks a considerably tougher time than Australia A, the runners-up.
Upolu Samoa won the Pacific Rugby Cup and a sevens team drawn entirely from home-based talent gatecrashed the short game's elite, winning at Wellington and Hong Kong and falling only just short of the overall title after handicapping itself with a slow start.
As coach Michael Jones says, whatever other problems Samoan rugby has 'We still have our basic resource, our people'. If you set out from first principles to design a rugby player, the outcome would probably be a Samoan.
Even so, little would help the Samoans more than a time machine capable of knocking 15 to 20 years off the age of their coaches.
Put Jones, who in this pair of eyes contests with John Eales the title of the greatest forward ever seen at a World Cup, back on the field in peak form along with forwards coach and 1991 captain Peter Fatialofa, a rugged prop who worked as a piano mover and always gave the impression he could lift a Steinway unaided, and they'd worry any opponent.
As ever, preparation has been a problem. Simply getting a squad of players strewn across the world as they pursue their professional careers in one place is complicated and expensive.
The three-match tour of England showed both how much work there was to do on knitting the team together as they conceded two tries in the first 10 minutes to Harlequins, but was also a reminder of the raw talent available as they beat Northampton and Sale.
There are clear echoes of 2003 in a draw that once more pitches them in with England and South Africa. With Tonga and the USA, who whatever their other limitations rarely shirk a big hit, completing the pool there is little doubt this will be the most ferociously concussive group in the tournament.
There is, though, one significance difference. In 2003 the Samoans were able to play themselves into form against Georgia and Uruguay before ambushing England.
This time they go straight in against the formidable Boks, who look a much better all-round outfit than the group who saw off Samoa with some aplomb four years ago.
Tonga come next, but the big match looks likely to be the clash with England in Nantes on the third weekend, which looms as a possible straight eliminator for second place in the pool. Samoa will have had only six days from their previous match, compared to eight for England.
Samoa, it must be said, have been unlucky with the draw.
Any other group would have offered higher-rated opposition potentially vulnerable to their hard-hitting, counter-punching style. Perhaps they should have aimed for second in the qualifiers and gone in alongside Wales and Australia rather than the grinding set-piece-oriented behemoths they must face in pool A.
Still, given some set-piece ball they've the potential to disturb the giants. Nobody who saw Bristol last season has any doubt of David Lemi's brilliance as an outside-back while veteran Brian Lima can be counted upon to leave his mark on his opposite numbers.
Some observers consider that wing Lome Faatau is better than either, so they're spoilt for choice in the back three. Throw in a couple of Tuilagis - apparently there is still at least one more to come - the power of prop Census Johnston and the handling skills of hooker Silao Vaisole Sefo and their mix of physicality and sublety demands to be respected.
Best bet is that they may have to settle for an honourable 3rd in their pool, but not before they've given the qualifiers a few uncomfortable moments.
England in particular know that a below-par performance could damage not only their physical health, but their chances of progression. And come 2011, with the benefits of the IRB's high performance programme for the second-rank nations kicking in, who knows what they might not achieve?