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Tuilagi wreaks havoc for Samoa

Improving Islanders challenge rugby’s old guard

Charles Whitting @CharlesWhit

With the Rugby World Cup now upon us, the eyes of the world are turning to the Land of the Long White Cloud. Pubs and clubs have been alive with chatter about Ireland’s four straight defeats, Australia’s remarkable Tri-Nations Series victory and the stage at which New Zealand will choke this time round.

However, it seems there was little talk about the three proud rugby teams to the north of the hosts.

The Pacific Islanders of Tonga, Manu Samoa and Fiji have always been renowned as exceptionally gifted, mixing bone-shattering tackles with prayers and exhilarating pace with outrageous handling. Though none of the three has gone further than a quarter-final, their menace has always been evident.

One need only mention the names Brian “The Chiropractor” Lima and Pat Lam to send Welsh fans into nervous quivers after the famous victories that knocked Wales out of the 1991 and 1999 World Cups. The men in red missed out on another quarter-final place four years ago when Fiji’s Graham Dewes scored a late try to earn his side a famous victory. Even the mighty England team of 2003 were sweating right to the end against a ferocious Samoa side in the pool stages.

The innate ability of the Pacific Islanders has been rightly coveted across the rugby globe. Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko, the electric All Blacks wingers, were both born in Fiji before their parents moved to New Zealand and they began to worship at the shrine of the silver fern.

Other countries are now starting to capitalise on rules of residency to cap talented Islanders. Toby Faletau of Wales is the son of Tonga international Kuli Faletau, and the new England sensation Manu Tuilagi is the youngest of seven Samoan brothers in what must be the finest rugby family since the Quinnells or Underwoods.

Clubs have also been swift to snap up the raw talent of South Sea superstars. More than half of the players going to New Zealand with Tonga, Fiji and Samoa play their rugby in Europe, specifically in the Aviva Premiership in England and the French Top 14. Every team has at least one player from the Pacific and these players are not there just to make up the numbers.

In 2009, Seilala Mapusua, the London Irish centre who captains Samoa in this year’s World Cup, won the Players’ Player of the Year award in the Premiership. In recent years, the Exiles have had a plethora of players that gave both defenders and commentators sleepless nights, such as Sailosi Tagicakibau, Elvis Seveali’i, George Stowers and Chris Hala’ufia.

Northampton’s Tongan titan, Soane Tonga’uiha, was at the heart of the Saints’ charge to this year’s Heineken Cup final and the Tuilagis have been providing Leicester with truly terrifying players for years with Alesana outscoring all others this season with 13 tries and Manu looking like the answer to England’s midfield woes.

Fijians have also made a huge impact on the Premiership. Special mention must go out to Gloucester’s tireless No 8, Akapusi Qera, Saracens’ flying magician, Michael Tagicakibau, and Sisa Koyamaibole, the Sale No 8 who resembles the boulder from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In France last season, three of the top ten try-scorers were from the South Seas: Timoci Nagusa, who scored in the Top 14 final, plus Joe Tekori of Castres and Sireli Bobo of Racing Metro, whose exceptional try in the Heineken Cup match at Saracens will be forever remembered for Brendan Venter’s remarkable post-match reaction: “Bit of magic… Sireli Bobo… yah… very good… three cheers for Sireli Bobo.”

That’s not to say that their services aren’t appreciated elsewhere in Europe. Leinster’s flying Fijian, Isa Nacewa, was voted the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association Player of the Year for his instrumental role in securing the province’s second Heineken Cup triumph. His two blistering tries for the Barbarians against Wales earlier this year were yet another warning to Fiji’s World Cup opponents.

Yet Nacewa is considered surplus to requirements by Fiji, an ominous omission that begs the question: who’s keeping him out of the team? Fiji’s captain for the World Cup, Deacon Manu, has been a mainstay of the creaking Scarlets scrum for years at prop, while Maama Molitika, Tonga’s answer to Serge Betsen, has been Cardiff Blues’ first choice blindside since 2007.

However, while it seems clear what European clubs are gaining from signing these side-stepping, barnstorming, rib-cracking flyers, what is interesting is what the players are getting out of this arrangement. They are certainly raking in the big bucks, especially those who get the lucrative deals in France, where the higher salary cap offers enormous pay packets.

Nevertheless, they are also gaining something of greater value than that, something that their own club structure cannot provide: professional experience. This now makes them a very real threat to the old established teams.

Until the 1930s, most Pacific Island teams would play without boots but were still a fearsome force. Fiji recorded two famous victories away to Australia in the 1950s; however, these matches were not granted full Test status and it was not until the 1980s that matches involving the South Sea teams were upgraded to that level.

Indeed, until Wales toured Fiji, Tonga and Western Samoa in 1986, the teams were scarcely known in Europe and Western Samoa did not even receive an invitation to the inaugural World Cup.

Because of this neglect, these passionate players have always suffered from a lack of real preparation before games, thrown together in a manner not dissimilar to the Barbarians. The general consensus about how to face them was that you weathered the early hurricane from your fired-up opponents and then, when they had exhausted themselves with 20 minutes to go, let loose and gave the winning scoreline some gloss.

It was only when Samoa had run out of steam in the 2003 World Cup that England were even able to take the lead, let alone run out comfortable winners.

The rugby world still does not give enough time to the Pacific Islands. Tours by European teams are rare, New Zealand send their 2nd XV to compete in the Pacific Nations Cup and Australia rejected the invitation.

Fiji, Samoa and Tonga spend very little time together as teams, and certainly not enough playing Test matches. On an individual level, though, their players are experiencing top-level club rugby in Europe and, in the Heineken Cup, matches that equal or even exceed the intensity of the international game.

Just as Northampton are a better team when Tonga’uiha is rampaging, the man himself has been able to make full use of the professional environment at the club to play rugby every weekend against high-quality opposition with strict referees. He has experienced knockout rugby and learnt the skills required to win such games, skills the All Blacks, who play no knockout rugby at club level, patently lacked in the quarter-final defeat to France four years ago.

When the game turned professional, the Pacific Islanders risked being left behind with limited funding or attention from other Test-playing nations. Though this continues to be the case, European club rugby brings their players to the World Cup full of hard-nosed experience and I think they’ll be more competitive than ever.

Samoa sent out by far the most dangerous warning last month when they beat Australia in Sydney, the first time they had done so since their matches were granted Test status. The Samoans find themselves in an incredibly competitive pool that promises plenty of excitement and running rugby.

Mapusua’s men opened their campaign with an easy victory over minnows Namibia before they get the chance to cause a third upset against their bunny team, Wales. Samoa have, in fact, reached the quarter-finals more times that Wales despite competing in one fewer World Cup.

Their final game will be against a South Africa team in a dire streak of form going into the World Cup who have already been roughed up by Wales, and with Fiji and Namibia to come by the time the hard-tackling Samoans get a run at them.

Fiji are in the same pool as Samoa and end that stage against Wales. It will be interesting to see how the Dragons fare against a team who have such a psychological edge over them these days, Fiji having held them to a draw in Cardiff last year. Fiji severely tested South Africa at the last World Cup too and if their scrum holds out, they could be on course for another upset.

It would be a brave man who bets on both Wales and South Africa going out at the group stage, but it would be a brave one also who bets on both Samoa and Fiji suffering that fate. And once they’re in the quarter-finals, all those hard-fought wins in the mud of Europe could kick-start something truly remarkable.

The same, sadly, cannot be said of Tonga. Stuck in a group with two teams backed to reach the semis, their chances of getting out the pool are slim to none now following defeats to New Zealand and Canada, despite their leaps forward.

Tonga’s final game is against France, a team they have beaten before. It’s a match they must target and, if they bring all their European experience to the fore, they can win if only to restore pride. This World Cup needs some big upsets and the Islanders, with their new professional edge, could well be the teams to deliver them.

Follow the rest of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand with ITV’s in-depth coverage

If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt Ogborn’s candid interview with England wing Mark Cueto

4 Responses to “Pacific Storm”

  1. Great read and so true! I just wanted to make a comment about Isa Nacewa – its not that Fiji rugby didnt want him – its that he didnt want to play for Fiji.. he says it was not right for his family right now.. so we’re told.. who knows what really went down when FRU went up there. Having said that – Fiji has a great team! And hopefully we can give the big guns a run for their money! TOSO VITI TOSO!!!

    Reply
  2. As long as NZ, AUS and even ENG keep poaching the Islander’s best players they’ve no real chance of an upset. The tournament is too long, the top teams get too many days rest between games for their to be any upset. Semis will be NZ, SA and AUS with Fra or England the 4th team. I hope you are right but I see no small nation upset.

    Reply
    • Pete Whitting October 12, 2011

      Well fancy leaving out Wales.Semis are Wales France,NZ Aussies.Perhaps the small principality is not such a small nation afterall. Hope you all enjoy the next couple of weeks.
      Peter.

      Reply
  3. Great read. Just a minor correction. Samoa captain is Mahonri Schwalger not Mapusua. Go the MANU @gothemanu #gomanu

    Reply

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