The overwhelming majority of the Samoans who will start Saturday night’s floodlit Test at Twickenham know what it is to play big-time club rugby – and earn proper money, with the right level of professional support – in the English Premiership: a fact that will add to the poignancy of the occasion, as well as the perilous nature of it from the red-rose point of view.
A few days ago, the islanders were planning to boycott the game in protest at alleged mismanagement by their own governing body. Forced to back down, they now want to make the most of it, both competitively and politically.
“Our problems off the field have brought us together and given us more tightness in our preparation and our focus for this match,” said the tourists’ captain, David Lemi, who was playing on the wing for Bristol as long ago as 2005 and is now back at the West Country club after successful spells with Wasps and Worcester. “This is a massive opportunity for us. To play against a top-five team at this point will tell us where we are ahead of next year’s World Cup.”
If Lemi and his men can somehow put their internal upheavals behind them and produce a performance worthy of their tradition, despite glaring organisational and financial disadvantages, it will also remind Samoa – the world’s most populous rugby country – of their importance to the international game. Without them and their Pacific neighbours, Fiji and Tonga, the union code’s claim to global status could not be taken seriously.
There is a growing feeling, spreading well beyond the impoverished rugby communities of the South Seas, that the major powers in the sport should start putting their hands in their pockets on behalf of the greater good. In essence, this means giving the Samoans – and, indeed, all the so-called “tier two” Test-playing nations – a cut of the gate money generated by the autumn internationals in which they participate. Nothing could be fairer; nothing would be more transformative.
Samoa’s strike plans evaporated when the International Rugby Board, which now calls itself World Rugby, threatened them with reprisals: the squad were told they risked being kicked out of next year’s World Cup, barred from the Olympic Sevens tournament in 2016 and having their long-awaited home game with the All Blacks in Apia wiped off the calendar. Two meetings between the players and the authorities – the first in France last weekend, the second in London yesterday – were then scrapped because the Samoan Rugby Union failed to send a representative.
Needless to say, this left the players in a rare old fume. “The union wants to meet after the tour, but we disband following this England game and there’ll be no one around,” said Dan Leo, the London Irish lock who has been named among the replacements for Saturday’s match. “The SRU is quite happy with this dragging on for months, even years. Where it leaves us as players, I don’t know. Our short-term goal is to play well at Twickenham, to give the best performance we can produce. It’s going to be difficult, given where our minds are, but we’ll try to put things aside for this game.”
Among the more familiar starters are Ken Pisi of Northampton, Alapati Leiua of Wasps and Johnny Leota of Sale in the backs, together with the brilliant scrum-half Khan Fotuali’i, who plays alongside Pisi at Franklin’s Gardens. Up front, the former Saracens prop Census Johnston, now in France with Toulouse, will win his 50th cap. He is joined in the pack by the Bristol breakaway Jack Lam and the London Irish No 8 Ofisa Treviranus.Reuse content