Epi centre of the lions of the Pacific

Taione learns from controversies at Sale and Newcastle to put heart into Islands venture
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The Independent Online

Pat Lam, a legend in Samoa and over here, is coach of the Pacific Islanders. There, it is easier said than done. His trickiest task is ensuring his squad, assembled not only from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga but most points on the compass, answer a roll call tomorrow morning. For Lam read sheepdog.

"We need genuine matches so we can grow," he said, "but the real issue is what happens to our players when they go to Europe. A lot get pressure put on them not to play for the islands. Yet the reason they're available for the clubs is that they're from the islands. If it wasn't for the International Board's rules we'd struggle to put together a team."

Lam likes regulation 9.4, which says that if a player is selected by his country he has to be released - if the match in question falls within the so-called "international window". Last Wednesday the Pacific Islanders - they play Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, followed by Scotland at Murrayfield and Ireland at Lansdowne Road - were to meet Harlequins at the Stoop in a warm-up match. It was cancelled after the Guinness Premiership clubs said they would not release any of their Samoans, Fijians or Tongans because the game was outside the window.

It has not escaped Lam that England's Test against New Zealand is also outside the autumn schedule, but then the second-tier countries have long been aware they are not playing on a level field. The majority of Lam's squad, those who play for British and French clubs, will not meet up in Cardiff until today or tomorrow. "It means we'll have only four training sessions before meeting Wales," Lam said. "It's like being in the dark ages.

"The one thing you need to put three countries together is time. They come from different parts of the world, under different coaches and systems. There are a lot of very good players but they need to gel as a team to stand any chance."

Epi Taione, the highly rated Tongan, was one of a large number of Pacific Islanders who should have played in the last World Cup but didn't. "It was the club or country thing and unfortunately I couldn't make myself available," Taione said. "I couldn't do anything about it."

At the time he was playing for Newcastle, whom he subsequently left to join Sale. He spent seven seasons in the north of England, and has bittersweet memories.

All hell broke loose at a Gloucester-Newcastle match when Rob Andrew, then the coach on Tyneside, accused Olivier Azam, Gloucester's French hooker, of racially abusing Taione. In the end Azam and Gloucester were cleared. What really hurt Taione, though, was his experience after moving to Sale. In the Heineken Cup last January Munster did a job on Sale at Thomond Park, after which Taione was cited for biting Denis Leamy on the arm.

Because of what the disciplinary panel called "various compelling mitigating factors" Taione received an 18-week ban, but the upshot was that he and Sale parted company "by mutual consent". He made just three appearances for the Cheshire club, and at the time he said: "The best thing was to release myself from my contract and make a new start. I'm a proud man and I did not deliver my part of the deal for Sale. I deeply regret my actions and apologise to the club, my team-mates and the supporters, all of whom I let down through a moment of madness for which I'm truly remorseful." Sale, who said he made a "brave and honourable" decision, went on to win the Premiership.

Taione then joined the Sanyo club in Tokyo, where he has resurrected his career. The season in Japan is short, which means he has had time to play for Tonga, and if they beat South Korea in a final qualifier he will appear for his country in the World Cup in France next year.

He has also been selected for the Pacific Islanders and was one of the advance guard in Cardiff where, for the first time, he reflected on what went wrong in Limerick."It was done in the heat of the moment and out of sheer frustration. There was a lot of stuff going on and we were beaten left, right and centre. There's something about that place. I was playing for the best English side and we were treated to a different level. I felt helpless and sometimes emotion gets the better of me. When I joined Sale I had a broken arm and I broke it again. These are not excuses, just reasons. I did the right thing to quit. I've learnt from the whole thing."

Lam is delighted to have Taione in his squad, not least because the 27-year-old is effective in the back row, centre or wing. "It's nice to be back in Britain," Taione said. "I still have a lot of friends in Newcastle and Manchester."

The Pacific Islanders now only choose players who will be available for the three countries in the World Cup, which means there is no place, for example, for the wing Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was born in Fiji but plays for the All Blacks. However, they have another Fijian flyer in the Agen wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who last week destroyed Gloucester in the Heineken Cup.

Lam is keeping his fingers crossed that Caucau, not the best timekeeper in the world, makes it to the party. "We have a big responsibility," the coach said. "For the Pacific Islands this team is the equivalent of the Lions."