Rugby League World Cup: Enter Inga the singer

Tuigamala settles into new routine before today's group decider against Wales; Owen Slot meets the Wigan centre after his debut for Western Samoa
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The Independent Online
AN extraordinary sound - a thunderous stampede punctuated by laughter - has pervaded the Posthouse hotel outside Cardiff during the past two weeks. It is caused by the Western Samoan rugby league team, a new team learning a new haka, and then laughing when a small minority continue to get it wrong. The minority have been dubbed "The Plastics" and have been forced to endure extra class.

All preparation was over by Thursday night and, for the first time, under the floodlights of Ninian Park, the dance went public, led by Va'aiga Tuigamala. In mid-haka, Tuigamala took two steps forward and almost flattened a cameraman in front of him. "I didn't notice him, I was concentrating so much," Tuigamala said the following day. "The thing is, when I pulled on the Samoan jersey, it reminded me of what it was like to be an All Black for the first time. It was like being reborn."

The Samoans went on to flatten the French 56-10, and Tuigamala scored two tries. It was a triumphant end to a unique fortnight in which the team had come together for the first time. Many had not met before. The side even had a new name, Toa Samoa - Samoan Warriors - changed from Samoan Chiefs because, the manager explained: "Government at home wanted something deeper, more manly."

Two weeks ago, Tuigamala had set off to join his deeper, more manly team- mates, driving from Wigan to Cardiff with three fellow Samoans, Vila Matautia and Apollo Perelini of St Helens and John Schuster of Halifax. According to his brother Luis, who plays for Orrell, Tuigamala has been talking about the World Cup for months: "He really couldn't wait for it."

"I was itching the moment we got in the car," Tuigamala said. "The opportunity to play for each other, for our country, is something we've dreamed of. On the way down we talked about being the competition's dark horses, but we were mainly laughing, just itching to meet the other guys."

And part of the enthusiasm, said his brother, was because "the thing between him and New Zealand had gone away". The "thing" was Tuigamala's decision to represent Western Samoa, having played his union for New Zealand. Tuigamala has always maintained that there was never any question that he would play league for the country where he was born. "Having now played for Samoa," he said, "I'd put it on a par with the All Blacks."

His impression on arrival in Cardiff was more than favourable. "One thing I found about this team is how relaxed it all is. How calm and chilled out they all are whereas the All Blacks were more intense. I think that is partly due to the high expectations that go with the All Blacks, but it is also due to the different codes. Because league players are professional, they know their jobs so well and are able to switch on any time they want to. That is something I wasn't used to, I was always brought up to be totally focused on the job. This has opened my eyes to a different approach to the game."

Tuigamala is not alone in enjoying the Samoan way. Graham Lowe, their coach, whose CV includes three years at Wigan, says that this is the most enjoyable tour he has been on and rarely fails to mention his side's appetite for song. "They're pretty quiet, very happy and really a pleasure to be around," he said.

When they are not playing, training or practising their haka, they do indeed spend much of their time singing. "We sing and tell stories about when we were young and brought up in little huts," Tuigamala said, explaining that a number of guitars also made the trip and that Sam Panapa and Matautia are normally strumming them. "When you've got talent like that around, it's great because you can just sit around and jam away."

On Thursday, the music stopped and the singers turned warriors. At the top of the stand at Ninian Park sat Clive Griffiths, coach to the Welsh team who had already beaten France 28-6. Wales play Western Samoa in the group decider at Swansea today and Griffiths was there, he said, acknowledging ironically the near-empty stadium, "to do a spot of spying". He witnessed what he had expected: huge tackles, brilliant hands, awesome athleticism. "I think we've got the firepower to match these fellows," he said.

Under the stand a little later, a collection of Samoan Warriors arrived for a press conference. In their long blue ponchos, they appeared like travellers from afar: exotic, like gods. And any who doubted their abilities need only have seen their team T-shirts beneath: the "S" for Samoa matched the "S" for Superman.

When Lowe was asked how his men would prepare for the Wales game, he needed little time to think. "We'll relax a little," he said, "and then we'll probably sing some songs."

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