Rugby Union: Samoa travel far for due respect

Steve Bale on the island determined to remain part of international rugby union despite being cast adrift by its neighbours
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As the rugby union authorities in England and Scotland are more used to brickbats than bouquets, they may be pleased to know that in one faraway corner of the rugby world they are held up as paragons of farsighted virtue.

Ever since they were cast adrift by the big unions of the southern hemisphere at the end of the World Cup, the Western Samoans have been engaged in a battle for their islands' very survival as an international-playing country. Remember, only six months ago Samoa were World Cup quarter-finalists for the second time, which is more than could be said, for example, of Wales.

As it happens - and no thanks to the New Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions - they are winning the battle, and in propaganda terms they could scarcely have had a greater opportunity than the tour of Scotland and England, which will conclude with the Twickenham Test, a 78,000 sell-out, on Saturday week.

It is both poignant and pointed that the Western Samoa team have had to come half-way round the world to state their case, and a charitable view would be that a combination of the distance and the unfriendly weather has had its effect on an indifferent playing record including defeats by Cambridge University, the Midlands and North but lightened by the superb achievement in drawing with the Scots.

On the other hand, this would be to patronise the Samoans and, as this is their accusation against their nearest neighbours, they are happier to stand or fall on their own considerable merits. "All I can do is express the gratitude we feel that we have been given this opportunity and that we are being accorded the full status of a worthy international opponent," Bryan Williams, coach and habitual front man, said.

"We would like other unions to give us the same respect but closer to home it's been a very slow process. I have taken my concerns to the New Zealand Rugby Union but I have to say their attitude is pretty patronising, even towards me. The All Blacks have never been to Samoa and neither have Australia, yet both Wales and Scotland have, and the very fact that we are here in England tends to reinforce the contrast in the way we are treated."

As Williams is one of the all-time great All Blacks, a phenomenally gifted wing of Samoan descent who illuminated the Seventies, the unneighbourly negativism has been hard to take. And when the South African, Australian and New Zealand unions got into bed with Rupert Murdoch with their pounds 360m television deal announced on the eve of the World Cup final in June his very worst fears were realised.

Williams had warned that to exclude Samoa from the Sanza competition would be a death sentence to the national team, since the leading players would either sell themselves to rugby league or else play rugby union not only in Australia or New Zealand but for Australia or New Zealand. After the World Cup six of the squad who had been in South Africa went to league and one to Japan.

The effect was felt not simply on Williams's squad but on the country itself, since according to the coach's often-repeated aphorism, "rugby to the Samoans is as bread is to butter, as shoes are to feet." Samoans are also profoundly religious people - the touring party holds prayer meetings most evenings and immediately before and after every match - and, without being flippant, you could say their prayers are being answered.

As the only defence then available, Williams tried to sign the Samoans up to the rival rugby circus proposed by Murdoch's broadcasting antagonist, Kerry Packer, and it was only after that pie-in-the-sky had crumbled that the Samoans at last had a piece of good fortune when he bumped into Michael Fay, the merchant banker and yachting buff whose money had been behind New Zealand's America's Cup challenges.

"The Packer thing seemed to give us a lifeline when we were desperate and when it fell over some of the players decided they weren't going to wait around any longer. But then I happened to meet Michael at a function and when he said he enjoyed the rugby our team had played I told him the problems we had.

"He invited me to see him, we had some discussions and things graduated from there so that we now have a package in place that secures the financial position of our players. It's only a beginning but I'm sure people would agree we deserved a bit of luck."

The next problem to solve is regular international competition and Williams is immersed in establishing an annual Pan-Pacific competition involving the other island countries together with Argentina, America, Canada and Japan. More urgently, he had to put together a radically changed squad to make this tour in Scotland and England.

For a while there was concern that, whether through lack of finance or of adequate manpower, the Samoans might not make the trip. "There was a point when I was at my wits' end, but once we announced the Fay deal and there was the prospect of this Pan-Pacific tournament the players felt there was a future for Manu Samoa," Williams said.

"The difficulty is that when you lose players as we have you lose vital experience, the proven ability of players to perform in front of big crowds, to be away from home and play in foreign conditions." Saturday will bring them to Gloucester, and for a Samoan there could not be anything much more foreign than that.