Dan Leo: Samoa left with mountain to climb after All Blacks error

After a brutally long season the ever-dwindling holiday period is finally upon us. Four weeks to rest those aches and pains, put the feet up and take a well-deserved breather. For the Pacific Islanders among us, it’s a chance to reconnect with family, forget about frozen pitches in far-flung continents, and consume copious amounts of local delicacies; raw fish, taro and spit roasted pork.
When it comes to relaxing, no one does it like the Samoans, Tongans and Fijians. We are the world champions.
Few pro players would argue against the need for a global season if it meant more time to recuperate during the year. The increased ferocity in matches takes a huge toll on the body and players deserve every second of rest they get. Just don’t return 15 kilogrammes overweight is the message from uptight S&C coaches to their Island boys, as we laugh out the door. Hakuna matata!
Thirteen years ago when I made my debut in the Premiership, it was mainly Pacific Islanders that were bringing that physicality in the competition. Back then guys like Junior Paramore, Trevor Leota and Terry Fanolua were streets ahead of anyone else. Nowadays though, everyone has got that dimension to their game.
The reality is that as the sport has evolved so has the player. The advantage line is so hotly contested, as is the breakdown, that if you don’t have freakish power and robustness, you simply won’t survive. If you aren’t comfortable tackling a 115kg Samoan running straight at you then chances are you won’t have made it to the Premiership.
James Haskell isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I remember him as a youngster at Wasps. At the time, Alesana Tuilagi and Seru Rabeni were running rampage in Europe. Wasps and Leicester were about to do battle at Twickenham for European supremacy and James wanted to boost his confidence tackling Pacific Islanders should the occasion require it.
After every training session at Acton, James would pull me aside and ask me to truck the ball up with a 10-metre run-up. We wouldn’t stop until he’d made a dominant tackle. Sometimes we’d repeat the process 15 or 20 times and both of us would walk away battered and bruised. After two seasons though, he rarely required more than one or two attempts.
The aura that once shrouded Pacific Island players in the UK has diminished. We are no longer an unknown entity. In some ways, this could be a blessing. It means our players have to work to improve other aspects of their game. But we are going to have to develop that one-eyed determination to get there. That James Haskell-esque quality.
Rugby is a game that is still amateur in the Pacific. With no existing professional pathway – bar moving to New Zealand – you grow up playing for fun. Our skill sets reflect that. Naturally we are very comfortable with ball in hand and in the contact areas. Other things like aerial skills, the set-piece, and playing within a structure are less prevalent in games of backyard rugby and must be developed if we are to become well-rounded players.
Some of these elements can only be instilled through repetition and sheer hard work. In this respect, the happy-go-lucky attitude that makes Pacific Islanders some of the most entertaining players to watch can also be our Achilles heel.
While there was once a time when flare, power and pace was enough, rugby at the top level now requires honed skills, technique and above all discipline. The hallmark of the great All Blacks sides of late is that they have been able to harness that raw talent possessed by Pacific Islanders and establish those other skills in their players.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, players like Taulupe Faletau, the Vunipola brothers and Ben Te’o have become some of the best players in the world, a testament to the systems which have helped produce them. Back in the Pacific our systems still prove largely inadequate when it comes to addressing the detail.
Anyone who followed the Lions tour will realise how important having time together is for a team to gel. To throw a bunch of the world’s best players together and expect them to thrive straight away is nigh on impossible. Six weeks to learn new systems, and build key relationships with strangers was always going to be the Lions’ biggest hurdle but they very nearly pulled off the unthinkable.
As an Islander, we deal with that lack of preparation year-in year-out. In comparison to Samoa, who had four days together leading up to their recent match against the All Blacks, six weeks is an eternity. A luxury only afforded in World Cup years.
Agreeing to play the All Blacks under such circumstances was another mistake in a long-list of hiccups made by the Samoan RU of late. Any champion athlete will tell you that sport is as much about confidence as anything else. The ramifications of losing 87-0 to the All Blacks leading into a hugely important Pacific Nations Cup campaign were drastic.
RWC2019 qualification having slipped from our grasp, Samoa will now have to qualify the hard way.
Play-off games against runners-up in the Six Nations B competition are likely to be an expensive exercise for an already cash-strapped union. Extra fixtures to an already convoluted season don’t help either. Now ranked 16th, our lowest position ever, a faint light remains at the end of the tunnel for Samoa. Should we qualify for RWC2019, a noticeably easier Pool A beckons than our Pacific neighbours.
Since RWC2015, Fiji have made the biggest strides toward where they need to be. Led by John McKee in the XVs and Ben Ryan in the 7s, the ‘Flying Fijians’ are doing just that and are triple winners of the Pacific Nations Cup, as well as Olympic gold medallists.
Having most recently beaten Italy and the high-achieving Scots, the Fijians are building well for RWC2019 and a pool that contains Australia, Wales and Georgia. Fiji’s biggest concern is their form away from home.
This year’s Northern Hemisphere tour will be a good chance to develop upon that, and their match against Ireland on November 18 is shaping up to be pivotal to their preparations.
Of the Pacific teams, Tonga have emerged from the June internationals with the most to smile about. After an eight-year absence of international rugby in Tonga due to the state of their national stadium, the Ikale Tahi have regained permission to host fixtures.
Playing at home had an immediate impact on the Tongan side. After looking dead and buried 12 months ago, they managed to finish second in the Pacific Nations Cup, robbing Samoa of a likely RWC2019 qualification spot. A bittersweet moment, as they enter the pool of death with England, France and Argentina.
Nevertheless, the kava will be going down particularly well in Nuku’alofa!

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