By Dan Leo
No guts, fear in the contact area, and the mind-set of mere kids – the words spoken to Samoa’s national rugby team by Prime Minister, and Samoa Rugby Chairman, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi last week while addressing his side prior to the first of a two-leg World Cup qualification series against Germany.
“If you lose this game, I will expect your resignations immediately,” he went on to say.
While the rest of the rugby world read the tirade in shock, it was business as usual for the Samoa players, who have become well accustomed to prolonged outbursts of bitter, outspoken enunciation by our country’s leader.
Given Samoa’s recent history, Malielegaoi can be forgiven for perhaps thinking his angry words were justified. Samoa were on a ten-match losing streak, a disastrous free-fall from 8th in the world as recently as 2012, to today’s lowly standing of 17th. Ranking below our traditional rivals Fiji (currently 9th) and Tonga (12th), the later of whom Malielegaoi accused of “playing cricket” with Samoa two weeks prior.
Unarguably, it’s been a tumultuous five-year period for Samoa. The worst in our proud nation’s rugby history.
A small country in both geography and population, Samoa isn’t a place where you can easily escape the pressure as a player. Prior to the exploits of 1991, not many people had heard of the Samoan islands. Akin to our Pacific neighbours, the economy is today interlinked with the exposure the sport provides us. That said, qualifying for the World Cup has an effect on everybody who lives there, be it directly or indirectly.
For this reason and despite his open criticisms, Malielegaoi continues to channel vast amounts of public money into Samoan Rugby.
In a nation where running water isn’t yet available to all residents, the high cost of investment into the sport, along with Samoa rugby’s amazing rugby record of past, makes for an unbelievable and sometimes unachievable level of public expectation. It’s inescapable. With little else to report on, newspapers are filled with rugby articles, opinions, and stories. Some factual, others not.
Replays of recent Manu Samoa games are beamed continuously throughout the week on the main national television channel into every screen and village in the country. There is no hiding from a poor performance and it can feel like a pressure cooker environment to say the least. A proud people who love our rugby and know it inside out, Samoans are well accustomed to winning. In the islands if you are on form you are a hero. Play badly and everyone from your great-grandmother to the postman is a critic.
Given what was and still is at stake against Germany, it was really good to see the Samoan team deal with that pressure, putting the visitors away quite comfortably in the end 66 -15. While it wasn’t all one-way traffic, glimpses of the Samoa of old were evident. Confidence being at an all-time low, a big win was just what the side needed and they got it, despite the negativity from the chairman.
Under the circumstances, the Mouritz Botha-coached Germany side can hold their heads high. Coming into the game at late notice was never going to be easy. The bizarre conditions surrounding the dismissal of Romania, Belgium and Spain from the qualification process, all of who were above them in the pecking order, and the media storm that ensued, would have been new experiences for the German staff and players.
So too would the experience of travelling across the globe and being subjected to jetlag, the tropical conditions and the power-based game that is typical of the Pacific.
While they struggled to contain that power of Samoa particularly at scrum time, the Germans played some good rugby in patches and came away with two good tries to standout flanker Jaco Otto.
While a win in the second leg by 50 points is highly unlikely, Germany will go into next game of the series at Helderberg with the target of improving upon that deficit. You would think that should be achievable, given they will be playing at home, but I have a suspicion that Samoa – with a shot of confidence in the blood stream – might just increase the anti and surpass that score line from last week.
With the vast majority of our team being based here in the UK and Europe now, Samoa’s players could well be looking forward to this game in Germany more than the first leg in Apia. That was something that definitely crept up on me as a player. After a decade of living in England, returning for games in Samoa got more and more difficult as my body became more accustomed to the cooler climates and softer pitches.
Samoa themselves weren’t exempt from the ramifications of the European debacle that saw the three afore mentioned teams docked points for fielding ineligible players. With World Rugby being excruciatingly slow to act, the Samoans had to deal with the uncertainty around opposition, fixture dates, and crucially the availability of top line players, many whose clubs would have preferred them back long before the final match was eventually announced to be taking place on July 13th.
Without a doubt, many players sacrifice a lot to play for Samoa, as do all those who represent Tier 2 rugby playing nations and have to play these qualifier games that aren’t within the recognised Test windows.
For me, one of the most satisfying parts of the Samoan performance last weekend was the effort of No.9, Melani Matavao of the A’ana Chiefs. The only locally-based player in the side, Matavao was at the heart of everything good that Samoa did. Stepping into the big shoes left by the unavailability of Bath’s Kahn Fotuali’i, Matavao mixed excellent delivery with a strong running game, earning a deserved man of the match and scoring two classy tries.
In this day and age, the likelihood of the local system producing players who can cut it at Test level, is lowering by the day. Particularly in specialist positions like 9 and 10. With Fotuali’i and long serving Bristol No.10 Tusi Pisi winding down, Samoa’s succession plan at half-back is worrying, particularly heading into a World Cup year. The emergence of Matavao as a real contender couldn’t have come at a better time for Samoa, who still need more solid back up in that area, but which should allow Fotuali’i to slot in at ten should he need to in future.
As for Prime Minister Malielegaoi, no doubt he’ll be sitting in a plush air-conditioned office somewhere, feeling smug about how his address inspired a great reaction from the players. Who knows, maybe he deserves to. Before RWC in 2011, I was involved in a Samoa campaign in which we lost badly to three teams ranked below us in quick succession.
Like clockwork, Maliegaoi was on hand to deliver one of his rousing speeches, on that day comparing us to a bunch of lost little schoolgirls. Two days later, we went out and beat the Wallabies in Sydney, who had just won the Rugby Championship. Who’s to say that a bit of carefully-placed criticism can’t do a world of good!
By Dan Leo