First published in Rugby League World, Issue 386 (June 2013)
At first glance, being thrashed 36-4 by Pacific rivals Tonga in a game curtailed early because of a mass pitch invasion may not seem like the best preparation heading into RLWC2013. But, fortunately for Samoa, there’s a lot more to the story.
The first ever mid-season Pacific test match, sandwiched between the ANZAC test and City v Country on the NRL’s stand-alone representative weekend, generated more attention than any recent end-of-season Pacific international. The game, played in the Polynesian heartland of Penrith, was televised live in Australia and beamed around the Pacific, giving fans across the region the chance to watch arguably the most star-studded Samoa v Tonga clash in history.
Toa Samoa had not lost to their neighbours since 2006, when Mate Ma’a Tonga triumphed 18-10 in the Federation Shield at Headingley. Since then, Samoa have come out on top at RLWC2008 (20-12 at Penrith) and in an end-of-season test in 2010 (22-6 at Parramatta).
Under returning coach Steve Price (who had a spell away from the Samoa role after being appointed St George-Illawarra Dragons boss) and Rugby League Samoa Technical Director Nigel Vagana, Samoa have assembled a squad packed with NRL talent, including Roy Asotasi, Junior Sa’u, Eddy Pettybourne, Antonio Winterstein and Jeff Lima.
They went into the game as favourites but trailed 10-4 at half-time, as a well-structured young Tonga side, bolstered by former Kiwis Fuifui Moimoi and Sika Manu, and captained by former Kangaroo Brent Kite, eventually eased to a comfortable victory. The game ended in good-humoured chaos when hundreds of over-excited fans stormed the field with less than two minutes remaining, reflecting the wildly enthusiastic atmosphere that drowned out the players’ on-field calls in the first half.
“The scoreline was definitely disappointing and we could have finished a lot stronger,” admitted Samoa captain Asotasi. “But there are positives to take out of it and, looking towards the end of the year, we can look at ways we can improve because we’ve still got a lot of work to do, especially defensively.”
Despite the result, Rugby League Samoa officials were delighted with the publicity generated by the week-long camp and televised match as they continue to seek World Cup sponsors and local media coverage.
Two Samoa-based players travelled to Australia for the test camp – Tanielu Pasene and Leia Saofaiga from the Bulldogs club in Apia – and Rugby League Samoa have committed to bringing at least two domestic players to RLWC2013.
Former Wigan forward Lima admits having domestic players in the squad helped bring the NRL regulars down to earth. “For me, the most important thing is representing where your family is from,” Lima reflects. “The boys love the local guys from the islands, they were here for some experience, and it has been good for the whole team to have them around.”
Saofaiga, on his first visit to Australia, said the week had been an eye-opener. “It was very enjoyable and a great opportunity to join the NRL players and learn from their skills and experience. The atmosphere was awesome, and I’m very excited to represent my family, my village and my country.”
As is the case in most developing Rugby League nations, the sport in Samoa is run by a dedicated band of part-time administrators. But, for the past 18 months, Samoa has benefitted from a full-time Rugby League development officer, a new annual posting funded by the Australian government’s international development arm, AusAID.
Vagana explains: “To have someone dedicated 100 per cent to running and growing Rugby League in Samoa has been massive. Before that we really only had two guys running Rugby League there – one had an accounting business and the other was a wedding photographer. They’re still involved now, but it’s great that they’ve been able to get some support from a person who loves league and is able to dedicate his whole time to growing the game.”
Chris Newman, who now works as an NRL development officer in Western Australia, was the first to undertake the AusAID role from 2011-2012. He ran schools competitions, mentored local coaches, helped Australian junior sides tour Samoa, and delivered community development programmes.
“The game has so much potential in Samoa,” Newman enthuses. “The culture is awesome, and they love their rugby. Although rugby union is their national sport, I think Rugby League is better suited to a lot of the Samoans.
“We got kids actively involved in playing league and used it to relay messages about healthy living, nutrition, cyber safety, and reading programs. The more support we can offer from Australia to Samoa can only benefit local communities, Rugby League, and everyone involved.”
Vagana agrees that awareness of league’s benefits is growing in Samoa. “A lot of the kids and the locals can see the opportunities league offers as a pathway into a professional career. It’s a lot more realistic than some of the other options they have at home at the moment, and they’re really excited about it.”
These days Rugby League Samoa runs a domestic competition, high school and primary school tournaments, Toa Samoa senior and junior (U16) academies, and is developing a high performance sporting unit. They are also setting up links with some of the top sports schools in Australia, as Vagana explains.
“We’re looking at offering scholarships to the best young Samoan players to come to Australia and get two years’ education, all paid for, and be put into the school’s elite Rugby League academy. They will hopefully come through into the system and play NRL one day and, if it doesn’t work out, they still go back home with two years’ education in an Australian high school, which is a fantastic win either way. We want to make sure we’re helping them develop as players and, at the same time, giving them every opportunity to provide for their family long-term.”
For Price, the opportunity to re-take charge of Samoa heading into RLWC2013 has come at a perfect time.
“I’m really looking forward to putting Rugby League Samoa back on the world stage,” he enthuses. “Nigel (Vagana) has been doing a lot of behind the scenes work with the old names of the Kiwis and a lot of those guys want to represent their family and heritage.”
In addition to the NRL stars in the April squad, Steve Matai and Reni Maitua are expected to declare themselves available for Samoa in the coming months, and Price has a host of Super League stalwarts to add to the team sheet, including Tony Puletua, Harrison Hansen, Francis Meli, Iosia Soliola, Kylie Leuluai and Ali Lauiti’iti.
As a relatively small nation with a relatively large international player pool, Samoa arguably have a point to prove at RLWC2013. They finished ninth (out of ten) at RLWC2008 and failed to qualify for their next major competition, the 2009 Pacific Cup, after being knocked out by the Cook Islands in the pre-tournament qualifying match.
With so many NRL and Super League stars available this year, Samoa will be hoping for a vastly improved performance at RLWC2013, but face tough group matches against New Zealand, PNG and France.
“I certainly feel that we’ve got some very talented players, and I definitely think we can shock a few teams if we get it right,” Price insists.
“Having a number of players based in Super League will also help us. It’s important that we play to our strengths, acclimatise, prepare well, and play the footy we know we’re capable of.”
By: Joanna Lester