'Samoans are big and bulky. We're made for rugby'

At London Irish and throughout the Premiership, South Sea Islanders are a potent and growing force. The Exiles' centre Seilala Mapusua speaks to Chris Hewett about his countrymen's rise to power

Nobody saw them coming, least of all Wales. "Even though they were actually a very strong side," recalls the centre Mark Ring, who played and lost against the Samoans in the 1991 World Cup, "there was no use in pointing to that as an excuse: they were a South Sea island with a population less than Cardiff's, end of story.

For us to lose to them was unforgivable. Even now, it is remembered as one of the darkest results in the history of the Welsh team."

They really should get over it. Eighteen years on, it is possible to argue that, acre for acre, Samoa is the most fertile patch of rugby land on earth, and this current Guinness Premiership campaign marks another watershed for a Pacific people who play their national sport in a spectacularly non-pacific fashion. In the decade or so since the first generation of Samoan professionals arrived in these parts – Va'aiga Tuigamala, Pat Lam, Terry Fanolua, Shem Tatupu, Trevor Leota – their influence has grown steadily. Now, for the first time, they have an entire international XV playing in the world's most competitive domestic tournament.

For this, they can thank their tight forwards. The Premiership has always had its share of Samoan backs and back-rowers – the trailblazers were quickly followed by the likes of Steve Bachop and John Schuster, Isaac Fea'unati and Junior Paramore (who famously drove one rival to remark that he'd hate to get on the wrong side of Senior Paramore) – but props and locks have been scarce by comparison. This season, however, the likes of Fosi Pala'amo, James Johnston and Felipo Levi have materialised to flesh out the front five of their country's England-based pack.

"The Samoans have made a fantastic contribution," says Toby Booth, the head coach at London Irish and a man well placed to evaluate the Samoan impact on club rugby in this country, given his close working relationship with Sailosi Tagicakibau, Elvis Seveali'i, Seilala Mapusua and George Stowers, all of whom participated in last weekend's decisive victory over Gloucester.

"They bring great energy: they max out in everything they do, which is a wonderful attribute on the field, even if it sometimes causes the odd issue for the nutritionist. But the thing that really strikes me is the enormous amount of care they bring to a group. They're amazingly protective and supportive. I can only speak as I find, but they have helped create a special spirit here. They bring something of the tribal essence to the mix."

Yet it is still the case that many of the country's best players end up representing New Zealand – of the current All Black elite, Mils Muliaina, Isaia Toeava, Jerome Kaino and Rodney So'oialo were born in the islands, and there are others of Samoan descent – while the economics of professional rugby continue to undermine the islanders' chances of meeting their bigger, better-resourced rivals on anything resembling a level playing field. According to Mapusua, a couple of years younger than his fellow centre Seveali'i but generally regarded as the senior figure in the London Irish quartet, he and his brethren may never be in a position to cause more than the odd isolated upset on the international stage, despite the unique concentration of world-class talent in the twin Samoan islands of Upolu and Savai'i.

"It's getting harder for us," admits Mapusua, the 29-year-old midfielder, born in Moto'otua, the hospital district of the capital Apia. "We have no complaints about the International Rugby Board, whose support in recent years has been awesome. Money has been pumped in, high-performance programmes set up. But we're still only where the big countries were at the very start of the professional era, and they're moving away from us all the time.

"There is a huge gulf between ourselves and the richer teams when it comes to preparation. When we play Wales in November, we'll get together on the Sunday before the match, which is on the Friday night. Wales will have been together for almost three weeks by then. What can we do? We've never known anything different, so we'll play as we usually play and hope to stay competitive. We'll be committed and enthusiastic and valiant, but there will be no cohesion. In Test rugby, familiarity and spirit takes you only so far.

"Realistically, I don't think we can ever get to the level of New Zealand or South Africa. The differences in resources are too great. But I believe it would help the game in Samoa if the major nations played just once in a while in Apia, or came to us as part of a tour taking in Fiji and Tonga as well. I know there won't be much money generated, but it would mean so much for my people to come out and see a real Test match against one of the really strong nations. Samoans are in love with rugby, but when do they get a chance to see their fathers play, their brothers play, their sons play?" (To their shame, the All Blacks have never made the short hop to Samoa for a Test. Neither have the Wallabies; nor the Springboks, England or Scotland. Of the eight "foundation" unions, only Wales, Ireland and France have bothered).

Mapusua's rugby upbringing is a familiar one. "My family left Samoa for New Zealand when I was four: my father was a church minister and he was sent to Wellington to work with the Samoan community there," he says. "But I still have memories of playing rugby in the islands as an infant. Everyone played, whatever their age and with whatever they could use as a ball: a shoe, perhaps, or a stick. If the stick happened to break, the boy holding the bigger bit was the boy in possession. It was physical, too. We Samoans eat a lot of carbohydrates, we're big and bulky, and we're made for rugby."

He spent time at school in Auckland, playing in a side captained by Jonah Lomu, and won age-group honours there before graduating to top-class provincial rugby with Otago. Then came the move to England, where he won London Irish's "best newcomer" award in 2007 and the "players' player" gong earlier this year. The Professional Rugby Players' Association also honoured him at the end of last season and his efforts have placed him firmly in the grand tradition of outstanding Samoan imports.

"I'm settled here," he says. "I have another season after this on my current contract and I'd like to renew it when the time comes. Also, my son is in school here and doing well. He's become a right little Pom. But if you ask me where I see my home, it's in Samoa, in my mother's village on Upolo. Our society is founded on religion, and my father is a very respected figure. Every year I go back for a few weeks of church and family gatherings. It's where I'm from."

In his heart, Mapusua wishes the Samoan economy could support professional rugby and give brilliant players from every village the chance to make their way in the game. His head tells him this is nothing more than a pipe dream. The sporting diaspora will continue, with increasing numbers of his countrymen looking towards New Zealand and England for the chance to turn a buck.

"New Zealand is the natural place for we Samoans to go: it's very close geographically and there are strong communities in place there," he says. "But I think more will look towards England. The young guys say to me: 'What about the weather? What about the food?' I tell them the weather is no worse than New Zealand and the food is fine. There are plenty of McDonald's shops here.

"Am I proud of what we have achieved in Premiership rugby? Of course. I feel we have justified the faith shown in us, that we have earned our money. When we face each other for our different clubs, we do not spare ourselves, even though there is such a strong bond between us. But we are proud rugby people wherever we play. We have always been underdogs of the game, yet we have always found ways to punch above our weight.

"When I sit down and talk to someone like Delon Armitage [the London Irish full-back who broke into the England team last season] and we compare our experiences of international rugby, it's clear there is nothing in common. Not in terms of preparation for a Test match, or in terms of what we are paid. But I can accept that, as long as he's the one buying the beers."

Samoan XV: Chris Hewett's pick from the Premiership

15 David Lemi (Wasps)

A brilliant finisher born in the Samoan capital Apia.

14 Alesana Tuilagi (Leicester)

One of many rugby-playing brothers from the less populated Samoan island of Savai'i.

13 Elvis Seveali'i (London Irish)

Born in New Zealand to Samoan parents, he has served three Premiership clubs.

12 Seilala Mapusua (London Irish)

Among the most respected players in the Premiership and a natural leader.

11 Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish)

High-class finisher. Spent time playing Super 12 rugby with Waikato Chiefs.

10 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu (Gloucester)

The versatile midfielder from Apia. Moved from Bath to Kingsholm during the summer.

9 Steve So'oialo (Harlequins)

Product of a grand rugby family. Brother Rodney plays for the All Blacks.

1 Fosi Pala'amo (Leeds)

New Zealand-born prop who saw action on both sides of the scrum last season.

2 Mahonri Schwalger (Sale)

Has represented Samoa for the last nine years.

3 James Johnston (Harlequins)

A new recruit to the Premiership, first capped against Tonga last year.

4 Filipo Levi (Newcastle)

A multi-purpose forward signed from Ospreys. He has led the Samoan national team.

5 Daniel Leo (Wasps)

Described by the coach Shaun Edwards as a "bums-on-seats" player. A reliable servant.

6 George Stowers (London Irish)

Recommended to Exiles by Mapusua, he is expected to make a major impact.

7 Alfie To'oala (Leeds)

Born in Faga on the Savai'i coast, a ton-of-bricks tackler in the Samoan tradition.

8 Jonny Fa'amatuainu (Bath)

Fast and deceptively powerful. A regular for the West Countrymen since 2005.

Samoa: fact file

*Capital Apia

*Population 179,186

*Pop. density 63.2/km2; 163.7/sq mile.

*'Siva Tau' is a war dance performed since 1991 by Samoan sports teams.

*In traditional Samoan culture a man is only considered complete if they have a 'tatau'. (A tattoo from the knees up.)

*'Kava' is a seductive drink consumed at any ceremony of importance.

*Men propose with a roasted hog, if it is returned they have been rejected.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine