Samoans live in fear of the future

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The Independent Online
As Bryan Williams, one of the all-time great All Blacks, puts it: "Rugby to the Samoans is as bread is to butter, as shoes are to feet." Williams is of Samoan descent but when he was representing New Zealand in the Seventies playing for Samoa was not a worthwhile option.

But now that it is, now that Western Samoa are for the second time the darlings of a World Cup, their rugby is under threat as never before from an unholy alliance of the rugby unions who should be doing most to assist them.

So when Samoa play England at King's Park in Durban on Sunday the prize is not a quarter- final place - both have already qualified - but rather persuading Australia, New Zealand and South Africa not to abandon them by establishing a professional three nations' championship, supported by television mega-bucks, after the World Cup.

Not withstanding overwhelming defeats by Australia and South Africa in the past 10 months, Samoa feel they have done enough to be given this consideration. In 1991 they beat Wales at Cardiff Arms Park, all but beat the ultimate champions, Australia, and were deliriously sent on their way by 50,000 Scots after honourable defeat in the Murrayfield quarter- final.

Four years on and you could argue, given the support they are receiving from non-whites here, that the islanders are the most popular team in South Africa, the Springboks included. The spectacular comeback against Argentina was acclaimed by the Xhosa people who thronged parts of the Basil Kenyon Stadium in East London. A Zulu welcoming party awaited them when they arrived in Durban yesterday.

But according to Williams, the Samoan Rugby Union's technical adviser, no matter how lionised his team face extinction. "If we are left out of any plans for an international competition, whether professional or whatever, our players will not only go and play in Australia and New Zealand but also try and play for Australia and New Zealand," he said. "Rugby league is an extra threat and if we have both league and rugby [union] taking the cream of our talent, then the game won't survive at international level."

All Samoa can do about this is their best at this World Cup. So far they have beaten Italy as well as Argentina; next, more importantly, come England. "Our results in South Africa are vitally important in the outcome of this debate, because if we can compete here it demonstrates we could compete in any new competition," Williams said.

"I'm quite positive about the advances that have been made in five years. But it's one of my bones of contention with the New Zealand Rugby Union that it has never sent the All Blacks to Apia even though there are now five boys of Western Samoan heritage in the New Zealand squad at this World Cup."

Given a population of only 170,000, it is devastating that such exceptional talents as those of Alama Ieremia of Wellington, a centre who had been groomed to succeed Peter Fatialofa as Samoa's captain, and the Auckland scrum-half Junior Tonu'u should have belatedly rejected their own country.

But this has always been the way. Ieremia is playing not in Group B but in Group C with New Zealand. Tonu'u ended up not being selected, which to Williams is both ironic and an inexcusable waste. In the 1991 World Cup, Western Samoa reached the quarter-finals with Frank Bunce at centre and Stephen Bachop at stand-off. Both subsequently became All Blacks; Bunce is in the New Zealand team here now.

Even Pat Lam, captain against the Pumas on Tuesday, maintained his allegiance only after having an All Black trial. Williams's point is that if Western Samoa could become involved in a high-profile competition there would be less justification or incentive for changing loyalties.

"The island economy is pretty depressed with cyclones in each of the past three years and a crop blight, and it is only the success of the rugby team that buoys the country up," he said. "But there is no possibility of our rugby union competing with the big unions of the southern hemisphere in a commercial marketplace.

"If this thing is to be governed by pay-TV, people want variety and entertainment, which we can provide. And if we can be part of that sort of structured international competition and bring back some of the players who are twiddling their thumbs in New Zealand because they couldn't make the All Blacks, it would give our rugby its most important push since we emerged in the UK at the 1991 World Cup."

Bringing the boys back home is an appealing proposition. Michael Jones, no less, was playing for Samoa only a year before he burst upon the rugby world for New Zealand in the inaugural tournament of 1987. Josh Kronfeld, the Otago flanker who is already a sensation of this third tournament, figured in Samoan plans until the New Zealand selectors inconveniently decided they would prefer him to be an All Black.

Williams has been assisting the Samoan RU since 1990, travelling to Apia four or five times a year and accompanying them around the world while at the same time carrying on a law practice in his native Auckland - where the grass will always be greener than in Apia.

"For us a quarter-final place at this World Cup is the bottom line and thank goodness we have achieved it," he said. "The example of Fiji is very striking: quarter-finalists in '87, not so good in '91 and out of it in '95. We are fighting for our lives and we know we would have no future in international rugby if the same thing happened to us."

In which case, you could say international rugby would be butter without bread, shoes without feet.