Why the best of friends will resume an old rivalry

RUGBY LEAGUE CENTENARY WORLD CUP When Scott Gibbs (left) and Apollo Perelini first faced up to each other in union, Wales suffered the unthinkable. Should Western Samoa be the victors tomorrow it would not be such a shock, says Dave Hadfield
Click to follow
The Independent Online
One Welsh player can be excused a haunted look when he surveys the opposition at the Vetch Field tomorrow. For Scott Gibbs, the Halifax Centenary World Cup match against Western Samoa is not just a chance to qualify for the tournament's semi- finals, it is also a return to nightmare country.

He was in the Wales rugby union side that lost to the Samoans at Cardiff Arms Park in that code's World Cup in 1991, and he has never forgotten the experience.

Beaten by a side which, at the time, had little international pedigree, Wales faced mockery and vilification. What, they asked in the Valleys, would have happened if they had played the whole of Samoa?

"We took a lot of criticism, because at the time Western Samoa had just come up and had no real record in internationals," says Gibbs, now a successful convert at St Helens.

"I got smashed on the jaw early on by Junior Paramore; they were a very physical side," he recalls. "We scored two late tries to get back into it but time ran out for us."

The result was widely regarded as an indication that time was running out for Welsh rugby as a whole and that decline had set in. According to Apollo Perelini, who played against Gibbs that day and who is now a team-mate at St Helens and a member of the Western Samoan rugby league squad, that perception was largely the result of ignorance.

"People just thought, 'Western Samoa? Where's that?' But if they had looked into it, they would have known that the whole team was playing rugby to a good standard in New Zealand," he says. "But to them we were an unknown quantity."

Perelini, who joined Saints two months after Gibbs, stayed in the same hotel and was helped by him to settle in at the club, says that it is a very different situation this time. Far more is expected from the Western Samoan league side than of their union counterparts four years ago. "If we were to beat them, people would probably say it was expected," Perelini says.

There is an element of the unexpected about Samoa, but that is because they have never played together. Their side is full of players whose ability and reputation is established, however, and the Welsh team this time is forewarned.

"We know Samoan rugby has gone from strength to strength and that a lot of players in the league side play in New Zealand and Britain. We have a better idea what to expect," Gibbs says.

Those expectations include another fiercely physical encounter. "They hit very hard," he says. "They seem to be built genetically different from everyone else."

For Perelini, famously named after the American moon shot, Apollo 11, memories of 1991 in Cardiff are still fresh. "It was one of the finest victories I ever experienced in a blue shirt," he says.

"Wales had always been right up there as a great rugby nation, so to beat them at Cardiff Arms Park was a great achievement. This game in Swansea hasn't had the hype that the rugby union games get, but it will be a major event in its own right."

Perelini, a wing forward in union, has settled down at prop for St Helens, a sign, as he says, of the need for quicker players in the front row in the modern game. One of his greatest fans at St Helens is Gibbs. "Apollo is a lovely person, but he has a very professional attitude," he says. "He has adapted really well."

"I'm really enjoying it," says Perelini himself. "It's very hard for the first six months and then you start to get used to things."

Gibbs' own transition from union to league was one of the smoothest on record. His hard-running, hard-tackling style translated immediately into his new game, and he suffered few of the teething pains associated with converts crossing the codes.

His only setback was a badly dislocated elbow which disrupted the latter stages of last season and stopped him taking up a summer contract with Manly, the club coached by the Australian coach, Bob Fulton, who had been hugely impressed by him during last year's Kangaroo tour.

Restored to full health this season, Gibbs was always destined to take his place in the Welsh league side, although he has not yet had the experience of playing for them at The Vetch.

"There will be a full house there on Sunday and the guys all tell me that there is far more atmosphere there than at Ninian Park," he says.

"It has been acknowledged from the start that this was the toughest group, so this match should be something special. Mind you, it's very, very rare you see a dull rugby league match."

And, as he could but does not add, very rare that you play in one that gives you a chance to rewrite some personal rugby history. Scott Gibbs, after all, does not want to go down in the unforgetting annals of Welsh sport as the man who lost to Western Samoa - those breakers of dreams - in both codes.