This year, we’ll see Samoa’s 7th tilt at the Cup. They’ve drawn well in their pool and will rate themselves a good shot at making the quarters for the fourth time. To do so, though, they’ll have to overcome more issues than most of their competitors. Can they overcome those issues and maintain their good form coming into the tournament?
1. A Proud World Cup History
Samoa have been to the quarters three times before – in 1991, 1995 and 1999. In 1995, they beat both Argentina and Italy to progress. But it was their massive upset over Wales in 1991 which holds the greatest meaning. That upset win meant (and means) a great deal to the proud nation, but was also a symbol that the “minnows” can topple the giants of the competition. That victory is the poster child for David vs Goliath in the Rugby World Cup.
Their 1999 victory over the Welsh again reinforced this idea. The Samoans got their chance at the Welsh again in 2011. They went down 17-10 and I suspect the Welsh breathed a sigh of relief.
It seems most of their players have been released from their European clubs and they are in good stead for another run this year.
2. Off-Field Trouble in Paradise
The team has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons lately. Not for your normal football player nonsense, either. No, it’s not the team’s behaviour at all. It’s the behaviour of the Samoan Rugby Union that has been questionable. The country’s Prime Minister, who doubles as the president of the SRU, is Tuilaepa Sailele. He became publicly embroiled in a dispute with the players late in 2014 and throughout this year over conditions for the players.
Oddly, the players didn’t have great concerns about their match payments, which is a pittance compared to other nations. They were more concerned about governance, appropriation of finances, their match schedules and lack of communication from the union. For their troubles, Sailele branded the players “spoilt children” and declared that the matter had been resolved without consulting the players – underlining the point the players made. The period saw touching displays of solidarity with the team from opponents England and South Africa, who showed their support by praying with the team on the field at their games.
3. Jack Lam
Jack is no stranger to Australian Rugby fans. The flanker was born in NZ, but spent his childhood in Canberra, where he played for St Edmund’s and made the Australian Schools team twice. He now plays for Bristol in the UK, but spent the four years before that in Super Rugby for the Hurricanes. He is also the cousin of Samoan legend, Pat Lam. Pat was in the team for all three of those World Cups where Samoa made the quarters and captained the second legendary win over Wales. That’s an important point, because if you believe what Pat has to say, Jack is a much better player than he ever was.
Lam has 15 tests under his belt for Samoa. He only has one try, but he’s not there to score points. He’s there to make the big hits in defence and bend the line in attack. And that, he does. Look for him to be forcing the turnover ball that the likes of the Pisi brothers will turn into points.
4. Ken Pisi
Ken is one third of Samoa’s flying Pisi brothers. The Saints winger will be joined by his older brothers George in the centres and and Tusi at fullback. Ken has only six test caps for Samoa, but he’s racked up 77 games for Northampton in the Aviva Premiership and scored 16 tries in that time. Many of those games have been played alongside brother George and Samoa will be looking for the pair to combine to put points on the board at the tournament.
Pisi’s footwork is second to none and his acceleration is off the charts. His mercurial running skills make breaks out of nothing and tries out of breaks. He is certainly one of the young players to watch at this year’s Cup. For an example of the sort of footwork you can expect, have a look at this finish.
5. The Tightest Pool
For mine, all bets are off for the runner-up in pool B. You’d be out of your skull if you think that South Africa won’t win the pool. But with Samoa and Scotland in the group and the Eagles and Brave Blossoms looking to cause and upset, second place could go any way. Samoa will be looking to knock off Scotland, of course, but they will also have to fend off a tough and hard-working Japan and an improving USA team to ensure their way through. The USA made life tough for Samoa in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup and will this year press their own case for a spot in the quarter finals.
Samoa’s last outing against Scotland was in 2013 and saw them down the Scots 27-17. Prior to that, Scotland seemed to have the wood on the islanders, though their losses have always been close ones. Samoa has some good form running into the tournament out of the Pacific Nations Cup, having beaten the USA in the process and leaving Japan at the bottom of their pool. I think this might be another year in which Samoa can press for an upset, just as they did in 1991 and 1999.