Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.
As I continue down the list alphabetically, today I will be looking at Samoa.
Using the 2016 & 2017 Pacific Nations Cup as the regional qualifying tournament, Samoa missed out to Tonga and Fiji in the race for the Oceania 1 & Oceania 2 spots. Entering into the Europe/Oceania playoff, they qualified by beating Germany 66-15 and 28-42.
Samoa finished 4ᵗʰ in the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup, with a win against Tonga but losses to the USA and at Fiji. They lost 34-15 to Australia but after a poor first half, they fought back well to make it a contest.
- Pool Stages (4ᵗʰ in Pool A)
- Russia 9-34 Samoa
- Scotland 34-0 Samoa
- Japan 38-19 Samoa
- Ireland 47-5 Samoa
How the mighty have fallen. Samoa used to be one of the teams you thought capable of beating out a Tier 1 nation for a spot in the knockouts, but that never really looked a possibility here.
While their outside backs looked very impressive against Russia, they had the advantage of being fresh and taking on a Russian team who were on a short turnaround, while they were also incredibly lucky that Romain Poite and his officials interpreted the high tackle framework different to the rest of the rugby world, leading to Ray Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u only receiving 1ˢᵗ half yellow cards for high tackles on Vasily Artemyev that should have been reds.
Their discipline didn’t improve as the tournament went on, with 2 penalty tries and 2 yellow cards for Ed Fidow against Scotland, a yellow card for TJ Ioane against Japan and yellows for Ioane and Jack Lam against Ireland. With the issues keeping 15 men on the pitch and multiple offences making it hard to keep territory and possession, it’s no real surprise that the team struggled to beat anyone else in the pool, with the Ireland match in particular being a largely defensive effort.
They should however take some solace from a performance against Japan that saw them win a number of turnovers at the breakdown – an area where the Brave Blossoms had been very strong through the tournament – while they did have some moments when they showed their quality in attack.
So I’m going to start by making very clear: I am far from an expert in Pacific Island rugby. Over the years I have heard plenty of negative information about the way the Samoan Rugby Union is run and I think the drop-off in the team’s performances over the last couple of cycles has highlighted that. So first things first, the governance needs sorting to make sure that the priority of the people at the top is in the right place.
Also very important is the need to get someone in who can sort out the discipline of the squad. Samoa have long had the reputation of a physical team with big hitters like Brian Lima and the Tuilagi brothers, but now the big hits are often illegal, while the team consistently struggles to keep the penalty count down and all 15 men on the pitch. If they can’t improve their discipline, they will always struggle against decent opposition. Further to that, I noticed how the team appeared to start losing their heads in matches as decisions (often the right call) went against them. From the way they were acting it looked as if they felt it was them against the world and rational thinking would give way to emotion. It is vital that Samoa gets in someone who will work with them to understand first of all why these decisions are going against them and then how to cut them out. Cut out the penalties and an improvement will begin straight away.
More than this though, it’s important to make sure the opportunities are there for the players to play against elite opposition. As with all the Pacific Island nations, Samoa need to be getting regular games against Tier 1 opposition… both at home and away. Similarly, their players need to be playing in elite competitions but also having the freedom to represent their country.. While a large number of the players from the World Cup squad are in top leagues, there are also a number who are currently unattached, including winger Belgium Tuatagaloa, who was the leading try scorer in the French third tier last season as his team Valence Romans Drôme Rugby earned promotion to Pro D2 but did not have his contract renewed as he wished to represent his country at the World Cup, limiting his availability. Similarly, there have been suggestions for a while that other players are being forced by their clubs to choose between a club contract that will pay their bills or an international career… This needs to change!
The big worry right now is that due to all of this, the Samoan squad is getting on in age. Only 4 of the squad will be under 30 when the next tournament starts, and there currently appears to be limited players of equivalent quality coming through to replace them. Between players going over to the elite leagues (and ending up playing for their new adopted nation) and limited options at home, the players coming through are not getting the chances needed to reach the quality needed for the national team to improve.
Ideally, a Samoan Super Rugby franchise would go a long way to sorting all of this. There would be an opportunity to play elite rugby without having to move abroad (which some players could still do in order to make a larger pool of eligible players in elite leagues), while having the franchise ran by the union means that there would not be the worry of a club v country dilemma. It would also give the added benefit of improving the national team’s chemistry, as currently it is very rare that the squad is able to get together, while having the majority training together at club level weekly would go a long way to improving this.
Do I see any of this happening any time soon? Not really, but something needs to be done or our days of seeing Samoa at the Rugby World Cup could soon come to an end.