There are a lot of intangible aspects to Richie McCaw’s greatness. He exudes an aura that compels teammates to dig deeper than they ever believed possible. You only need to look at the All Blacks’ last outing – an incredible heist from 19-0 down in Dublin – for that to hit home.
The numbers are staggering too, and underpin the success of a 13-year international career that has a few furlongs to run. There have been 110 wins from 124 matches including just three losses from 49 clashes with Six Nations sides. One Webb Ellis trophy crowns a gleaming mountain of silverware. But dwell on this for a second: the magnificent openside has never faced Samoa.
Of course this is not his fault – an injured rib ruled him out of the last meeting, a one-off at New Plymouth in 2008 – but neither is it an innocent quirk of New Zealand’s fixture list. Since 1924 when the Western Samoan Rugby Football Union was formed, there have been just five full Tests between the countries.
Others do not exactly possess a rich history of competition against Samoa. Boosted by World Cup fixtures, Scotland and Wales lead the way with nine encounters each. South Africa have had eight, England six with another to come at Twickenham in November.
Before Richie Gray, Ross Rennie and co. won 17-16 at Apia in June 2012, the last ‘Tier One’ outfit to travel to Samoa was Ireland in 2003 – 11 long years ago. That is a sad state of affairs, forged out of an odd situation where burgeoning, brilliant talent has comfortably surpassed infrastructure.
The recent words of Bundee Aki, the muscular Chiefs centre who will join Connacht after the current Super 15 campaign, spoke volumes for the predicament of Pacific Islanders.
“Hopefully when the time is right and if I’m playing good footy, I can play for the Ireland international team,” he told Fairfax News in an interview that was probably too honest.
“If I play three years over there and it doesn’t go well, I can always go back to Samoa.
“They are a good international team as well but I’m just trying to look after my family and myself. It’s a long commitment. I put a lot of thought into it, looking at my options in terms of international rugby.
“Obviously the All Blacks have got their midfielders and with Sonny [Bill Williams] coming back, it’s a not a bad thing for me to go.”
Auckland-born Aki may feel little allegiance to the blue shirt, but his explicit ranking of Samoa behind Ireland and New Zealand in order of preference highlighted the allure of a move abroad in pursuit of financial stability and – when the ludicrously short three-year residency period is fulfilled – Test rugby for an adopted nation.
Nathan Hughes, the exciting Wasps No. 8 and Aviva Premeirship flavour of the month, qualifies for both Fiji and Samoa. However, they are fall-backs. Having already served a residency period in New Zealand and given up hope of usurping Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Steven Luatua, he will now bide his time and see if England come knocking.
Some difficulties are easing slowly, at least. Japan and Italy are visiting Samoa in June, with the Azzurri also heading to Suva for a Fijian showdown. At the 2015 World Cup, ‘Tier Two’ sides will not be subjected to the same crammed schedule as 2011 – an injustice an outspoken Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu angrily likened to “slavery, the holocaust and apartheid” rolled into one.
More meaningful matches would be fantastic though, and surely the best way to achieve that is for more established neighbours to step up. You have to believe Samoa and Fiji – even Tonga with time – would put up a decent fight in an expanded Rugby Championship. Granted, the southern hemisphere calendar is already saturated, but some re-jigging, maybe to reduce the format to one match each, would help. Failing that, how about an annual home-and-away fortnight of games against the All Blacks? Mouth-watering. Given their current crop, Samoa might get close to winning as well.
Leicester Tigers behemoth Logovi’i Mulipola is hugely dynamic and hard-hitting prop. Just ask Clermont’s stellar names. Tightheads James Johnston of Saracens and big brother Census at Toulouse can mix it with the most destructive scrummagers. Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i of Northampton is a class act. Hurricanes’ back Alapati Leuia is a prodigiously strong, elusive runner, while franchise teammate Jack Lam has proven himself as perhaps the planet’s form breakdown forward. For a population of around 188,000, to be consistently churning out such quality is simply amazing.
Having signed for Wasps and Bristol respectively, Leuia and Lam will become household names in England before Christmas. But this is not merely about wanting to see these superb players more. It is about giving a passionate rugby country something to rally behind more regularly.