'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
Saturday 19 September 2009
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
*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.
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