Paramore's plea - save Samoa and the Islands

Jewels of the South Seas adorn the game. But, as Hugh Godwin discovers, they are in serious trouble
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The Independent Online

The World Cup would not be the tournament it is without Samoa, yet the International Rugby Board stand accused of abandoning the Islanders to a fate worse than the defeat they are expected to suffer against England today.

Junior Paramore, a member of the squad who beat Wales in 1991 and 1999, and gave South Africa a fearful fright in 1995, helped put the Samoans on the map. Now he fears they are about to be wiped off it.

Paramore, a fearsomely explosive back-rower, has been in English club rugby for almost eight years, with Bedford and, latterly, Gloucester. But before cash became the overriding factor he played a handsome part in the Samoans' remarkable World Cup story. As plain old Western Samoa in 1991, they defeated Wales 16-13 in Cardiff. The joke ran that Wales were lucky not to have faced the whole of Samoa. When 1999 came along, the name had changed, but the result was the same, with Paramore contributing to a 38-31 win, again in Cardiff.

"During the amateur days, I always managed to fit in the international games," said Paramore. "The clubs had a good relationship with the Samoan Rugby Union. Now the clubs are catching up with the times, saying they are not going to pay players when they are away. The England boys can afford to go; they're getting good money on both sides. But the Samoan Union cannot afford to compensate us."

What we thought were indelible footprints along the road to a genuinely global tournament have turned out to be signposts to disaster. Samoa's coach, John Boe, instead of presiding over a contender to the established unions, is predicting the demise of rugby in the Islands. Tonga and Fiji are similarly afflicted by an attack which is three-pronged.

There are the economic migrants, like Paramore, whose European clubs are reluctant to give them leave, sometimes due to concerns over inadequate insurance against injury while they are away. In England alone, Harlequins have retained George Harder, who played alongside Paramore in Samoa's quarter-final defeat by the Springboks in '95, Tani Fuga and Ace Tiatia; Trevor Leota is at Wasps; Isaac Feaunati at Bath; and Alfie To'oala at Orrell. Paramore's Gloucester team-mate Terry Fanolua and Orrell's Steve So'oialo are notable exceptions who decided the drop in earnings was worth it to be in Australia.

Then there are the dual-qualified Samoans who choose to represent New Zealand, often after getting their education there: men such as Mils Muliaina. Seven of the All Blacks' 10 tries against Canada were scored by Samoans.

Lastly there is the strict IRB regulation, updated in January 2000, which requires players to choose one nation for life. "They made that rule to stop players hopping around between countries," said Paramore, "but Andy Blowers [North-ampton's Samoan-born No 8 who played for the All Blacks] just wanted to go back and represent his own country. It's up to the IRB to change the rules." The Federation of Oceania Rugby Unions want the IRB to fall into line with the Olympics, where athletes can switch countries after a three-year stand-down, or sooner if all parties agree.

Paramore began his club career in New Zealand with Counties. His modern successors sign contracts at a young age that tie them to the All Blacks if they make the grade. By way of being extra-helpful, the IRB publish on their website the relevant certification form, wherein a player warrants that he has taken independent legal advice on the matter.

"The attitude of the young Samoan boys coming up is to play for the All Blacks as a priority, then Samoa is the second option," Paramore admitted. "Mils Muliaina was snapped up when he went to New Zealand, and good on him. Nobody wants to play for a useless team. There is no chance of establishing a professional league in Samoa. There's no cash there, and most of the boys would rather play rugby in New Zealand and Australia, or Europe, and progress in a better standard of rugby. Unfortunately it's a loss to Samoa and usually New Zealand's gain.

"I heard last month that Samoa are going to go back to being an amateur rugby team, because Sir Michael Fay [a millionaire benefactor] is pulling out. No businessman in Samoa is coming forward, and the IRB have to help out the likes of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, or we'll disappear. Boys like myself, Trevor [Leota] and Terry [Fanolua] have to honour our contracts in other countries. The money we get from the Samoan Rugby Union is peanuts. It's never going to cover our mortgages. I can't give a clear answer on what the solution is. We need somebody to stump up and give the Samoan Rugby Union some money. The All Blacks have never played a Test there, and England had to pull out of a tour last year because we couldn't afford to host it."

Paramore met up with Harder and another Samoan World Cup veteran, Rotherham's coach Mike Umaga, to celebrate Feaunati's birthday last week. He does not expect a celebration for Samoa's young team today. "Probably our side of the 1990s could have run England close," he said. "We did so much for our country, we put our country on the map. I hope and pray that it's not the end. We don't want to go back to square one."