Wales braced for big hit in Samoa's latest charge at global recognition
Pacific Islanders will use next year's World Cup to shame major countries into treating them fairly
Monday 22 November 2010
An English success is never good news for the Welsh, but the nature of the red-rose victory over Samoa resulted in the worst possible tidings being borne across the Severn. "Our next victory over a tier-one nation is coming," said Mahonri Schwalger, the tourists' hooker and captain, after helping his countrymen remind those who sit in governance over the world game that there is more to rugby than wall-to-wall television, corporate hospitality and the All Black haka. "This is the best side we've had in years. It won't be long now."
Unlike England, who have always found a way, however unconvincing, to beat teams from the Pacific Islands, Wales frequently find a way of doing the opposite. They were knocked out of the last World Cup by Fiji, against whom they drew in Cardiff last Friday night. As for their history against Samoa, the facts speak for themselves: three defeats in seven games, two of them at global gatherings in 1991 and 1999, is the stuff of nightmares. And who do Wales meet at the pool stage in New Zealand next year as they set off in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Trophy? Why, none other than Fiji and Samoa.
"We think we are on our way to a big performance at the World Cup," continued Schwalger.
The 32-year-old forward from the Samoan capital of Apia called time on his Premiership career with Sale in late August – he did not get along with the club's abrasive new coach, the one-time All Black flanker Mike Brewer – and headed back towards home, lured by the offer of a contract with the New Zealand provincial side Taranaki and a Super 15 deal with the Highlanders.
"We were very poor in the 2007 tournament in France, so there are things we want to put straight this time round," Schwalger said. "I believe we are well-placed to do this. The back-room operation is far better than it was in '07 and that will make a big difference. When we play now, we are thinking about our performance, not worrying about what is happening off the field."
There was ample evidence at Twickenham on Saturday to suggest that Samoa, treated with such cavalier disdain by rugby's governing bodies, might live up to the expectations of their captain. Certainly, a quarter-final place will not be beyond them: the last time they played Wales, at the Millennium Stadium last year, they lost by only four points; the last time they played Fiji, back in June, they spanked them 31-9. Perhaps if they make the last eight, the international community will finally pay them the compliment of playing a Test or two in Apia.
"It would mean so much to us, give our rugby such momentum," Schwalger said. "We've been asking New Zealand and Australia, the major powers in the Pacific region, to come to Apia for years, and we feel it's time they did so. But it's all about business, isn't it? It's all about sponsorship, all about money. We're moving in the right direction, but a stronger Test programme would help us fulfil our potential more quickly."
Happily for him and his medical doctor, Schwalger is not holding his breath for the Rugby Football Union to sanction a trip to the Islands. By rights, England should have visited Fiji and Tonga, as well as Samoa, in 2002, but Clive Woodward rejected the trip in favour of a two-match hop to Argentina. So much for the International Rugby Board's tour schedule.
A new schedule was agreed a few months ago, and it was designed, at least in part, to give the Islanders a fairer crack of the whip. Did the red-rose hierarchy buy into it? Did it hell. As Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman, admitted before the start of autumn Tests, there is no prospect of England playing a Test in Apia any time soon. Or, indeed, ever.
Interestingly enough, the England manager does think the Samoans deserve better. "I'd have loved to have played a Test in the Islands," Martin Johnson said last week, and when it was put to him that their treatment has been little short of scandalous, he replied: "I don't disagree." Johnson might consider pressing the point, for people like Thomas tend to listen to people like World Cup-winning England captains, especially when they are built like brick you-know-whats.
Both the Samoans and the Fijians say they are committed to keeping 15-man rugby at the centre of their operations but, as things stand, their success in the seven-a-side version of the sport promises to generate more of the one thing they need most: hard cash.
Sevens is now an Olympic pursuit – it is on the programme for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro – and this opens up access to new revenue streams that are, by Islands standards, revenue oceans. If the international community continues to neglect them at Test level, how long will it be before they concentrate all their efforts on the short game?
When Schwalger says it is all about money, he is right. Money is what chief executives think about, morning, noon and night. But the business of international sport is not the same as the business of selling shares, or cars, or cornflakes. Unless the sporting rich take the sporting poor with them, everyone will be impoverished. And rugby union will find itself contemplating a World Cup with the same global spread as baseball's World Series.
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