Saturday evening's fixture against England at Twickenham comes at a hugely turbulent time for Samoa, but this week is also proving a perfect chance for world rugby to rally around the Pacific Islanders.
I imagine it is pretty comforting to know All Black big men Jerome Kaino, Sonny Bill Williams, Brodie Retallick and Liam Messam have got your back. Then again, the Samoans preparing to represent their country against England on Saturday must be hurting badly.
After threatening to boycott the Twickenham tie in order to raise awareness of administrative shortcomings, they have allegedly been threatened with a razor-sharp trident – expulsion from next autumn’s Rugby World Cup, exclusion from the 2016 Olympic sevens and having their historic home Test against New Zealand cancelled.
Now, the nature of the problems that instigated the idea of collective action must seem prehistoric to those who have grown up in rugby’s professional era. Some sinister financial murkiness is best defined by the fact that a large public-funded pot simply went missing prior to 2011 and players have been expected to pay their own air fares since. A habit of naming the starting side on social media without informing the protagonists themselves epitomises an inconsiderate approach.
Such amateurish faults are totally at odds with the stratospheric talent that a nation of 190,000 continues to produce – skills that clubs in Europe will pay handsomely for. Alapati Leiua, a wonderful centre-cum-wing who joined Wasps this summer, reportedly commanded a three-year contract worth £600,000. He is worth every penny as well. Even defensive guru Brad Barritt has his work cut out on Saturday evening.
Put simply, there is a disconnect between playing prowess and the flimsy, corrupt infrastructure charged with managing it. For a while, pride was enough and held things in place. Quite rightly, those who wear blue now want a support network sufficient to give them the best chance of doing Samoa proud. But friction remains. Just this morning, news emerged that Union “got the dates mixed up” and missed a crucial meeting with newly re-named World Rugby (formerly the IRB).
The upshot is that the Pacific Islanders head into a mighty tough Test match under a dark cloud of disillusionment. Samoan’s prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who doubles up as the president of the rugby union, labelled them “spoilt children” for even entertaining thoughts of a strike. The situation feels like a horrible cul-de-sac, as lock Dan Leo explained last weekend.
“This has all weighed heavily on us all,” he explained. “We woke to those comments [by the prime minister] on Friday, which appeared to be dismissive of all our concerns.
“We know that our results on the field will help our cause somewhat by proving our commitment. We don’t want to get drawn into a slanging match.
“This is has been ongoing for months and initially we wanted to deal with it in-house and not to wash our dirty linen in public. We don’t want to destroy the thing we are trying to save, and that is Samoan rugby. That has got to be reciprocated by officials. And it hasn’t been.”
Samoa account for an extremely vivid part of international rugby’s rich tapestry. From the late Peter Fatialofa through Pat Lam and Brian Lima, via Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu to the likes of TJ Ioane Kahn Fotuali’i, who carry the torch today, their fully-committed characters and all-action playing style have brought smiles to many. That is a mightily important legacy.
The rugby community is very good at gathering together around a shared cause, and it was extremely heartening to see goodwill spread across the Twittersphere yesterday, celebrating a bona fide rugby heartland.
Samoa will run out at Twickenham wearing black armbands to mourn what is certainly a set-back in terms of player welfare. In the meantime, it feels like a public duty to make them aware of how much they are valued and respected.
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