AS THE champagne corks popped during the last week of the Rugby World Cup, there were two celebrations, thousands of miles apart, of a sharply contrasting nature. In Apia, the Western Samoan capital, a fortnight- long party toasted the return of a team who had once again defied the odds and reached the quarter-finals, the government threw dinners in the players' honour and, nightly, the packed streets swayed in jubilation. Meanwhile, back in Johannesburg, the rugby administrators of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were toasting a deal that would severely limit, for the foreseeable future, the chances of the Samoans being able to celebrate in such a way again.
The deal, announced on the eve of the World Cup final, was the injection of pounds 370m into southern hemisphere rugby by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. The fact that not a penny of this was due to go to Western Samoa or its players has precipitated the break-up of the team and brought a swift about-turn to eight years of progress. "It is galling, so very upsetting," Bryan Williams, the team coach, said, "and it is hard to see a way out."
There were some sobering moments, therefore, when the last drops of success had been drunk in Apia. Before Mike Umaga, the Samoan full-back, returned home to New Zealand, he was approached by Fata Sini, the stand-off who had scored two tries against England. "Fata's a hard man," Umaga recalled, "and he shook my hand and said, with a lump in his throat, 'I don't know when I'll see you again'. Fata, you see, was going to go back to work on his father's beach in the Samoan Outback, and he knew that I was likely to go to rugby league."
Umaga did, indeed, sign for Halifax a month later, the first of the team to change codes. At one stage, however, it looked as if he might be the only one. Back in Johannesburg, the day after the Samoans had been knocked out of the World Cup by South Africa, Williams and Pat Lam, the captain, had called a team meeting to inform the squad about the World Rugby Corporation, the Packer-backed circus, which, if it came off, would make them rich. Throughout the tournament, rugby league scouts had been buzzing round the squad; the message from Williams and Lam was to resist all offers - the best future was with the WRC.
Umaga aside, the squad followed the advice. When they returned home, the offers continued - Mal Meninga, the former Kangaroos captain, went on a recruiting drive - but were resisted. However, when the WRC collapsed a month ago, the Samoan team collapsed too. "The WRC was our only option," Williams said. "Because we had been left out of the other scenarios, it had become a bit of a lifeline. But that fell through, so we were left with nothing."
Finally the league scouts were successful and Sini, in fact, became the first to join Umaga in England. Sini had impressed Andy Gregory, the Salford coach, during that match against England and Eddie McDonnell, the former Widnes scout who had brought both Martin Offiah and Jonathan Davies to rugby league and now scouts for Gregory for free, set about tracking him down. This was not the easiest of tasks as there are no telephone lines on the east coast where Sini lived, yet four weeks ago a fax crackled through from Western Samoa: Sini would become a Salford player.
Sini arrived in England yesterday and already there are two more to follow. Shem Tatupu, Umaga's cousin who played at No 8 in South Africa, has signed for Wigan and Fereti Tuilagi, the centre, will join Umaga at Halifax. The most impressive Samoan in South Africa was Junior Paramore and negotiations are under way to bring him to England too. "I can assure you we'll see him soon," McDonnell said, refusing to disclose Paramore's destination. "Possibly within the month."
That accounts for one third of the Samoan World Cup team and there will be more. Professionalism in rugby union means that the money league offers is no longer a unique incentive and this has narrowed the field of targets down to the south Pacific islands where money in union does not exist. It is good business sense for league clubs as they do not have to pay huge transfer fees for a union convert and, once the offer comes through, it is an easy decision for the Samoans - when it is a toss-up between a five-figure salary as a professional sportsman and a low-paid job on a Samoan beach, you don't take long to make up your mind. And there is another factor which Umaga points out: the retirement of the long-term coach Peter Schuster. "Much as Bryan Williams is a nice guy and a good coach," Umaga said, "Peter Schuster had a kind of aura about him so that you always wanted to play for him. That has gone too."
Williams, however, is fighting to retain everything that his predecessor built and his efforts have been twofold: to land a big sponsor and to persuade the three big southern hemisphere unions to include the Samoans in their competitions. If he is successful, then money will come into the game and eradicate the temptation for the Samoans to defect; his problem is that with every defection, their marketability drops. "Each one who goes makes the situation more concerning," he said. "We've got a trickle-down going on and this will continue as I search for something concrete. If I can't come up with something, then it is very possible that more of them will go."
Meanwhile, as rugby union in Western Samoa searches desperately for a future, the league code is gradually securing its own. On national television, Winfield Cup (the Australian competition) games are being screened and the code is now so accepted that the national rugby league development office is run from within government buildings. "In the villages where they wanted to play rugby union, they now want to play rugby league," said Graham Lowe, the former Wigan coach who coaches the Samoan national rugby league side.
Lowe, one might expect, would enjoy the shift in power, but even he laments the tragedy that is the demise of the team that recently won so many admirers. "I really feel sorry for them," he said. "They have been dumped on by the powers in rugby union who have chosen to ignore them. And the thing is there are players round the world being paid enormous sums of money who aren't fit to tie the bootlaces of these Samoans. I also feel sorry for the administrators in Samoa; they've just got to watch their team dissolve in front of them. That team considered themselves part of the rugby union family, and they have finished up as orphans."
A vision of the future was to be had at Thrum Hall, Halifax, on Wednesday night, after the home side had been trounced by Wigan, when Umaga and John Schuster of Halifax and Va'aiga Tuigamala of Wigan joined in a brotherly embrace, Samoans all. Three of them this time, they will number five at their next meeting. "At least when Christmas comes," Umaga said, "we'll have a good time."
Where are they now?
Mike Umaga (15): The first of the World Cup converts.
Brian Lima (14): Plays union in Auckland. Agreed to change codes before World Cup, changed his mind.
To'o Vaega (13): Recently moved to play for a New Zealand side, Southlands. Has had many league offers.
Tupo Fa'amasino (12): Plays union for company in Japan.
Fereti Tuilagi (11): To join Halifax.
Fata Sini (10): Has joined Salford.
Tu Nu'uali'itia (9): Plays union for Auckland. Works as a sports rep.
Mike Mika (1): Lawyer in New Zealand, plays for Otago.
Tala Leiasamaivao (2): Councillor who plays and works in Wellington.
George Latu (3): Lawyer who plays and works in Samoa.
Saini Lemanea (4): "The Bushman" returned to the Samoan outback after World Cup. Not seen since.
Lio Falaniko (5): New to Otago this year.
Shem Tatupu (6): Signed for Wigan.
Junior Paramore (7): Warehouseman in NZ. Expected to change codes.
Pat Lam (8): Plays for Auckland. Works as education councillor.
Totals: R League 4; R Union 11
Playing in NZ 8; in Samoa 2Reuse content