England's World Cup pool is about to get a whole lot tougher
England’s bid for Rugby World Cup glory in France next year is about to become tougher with Samoa aiming to add former All Blacks Lima Sopoaga and Steve Luatua to their Pacific Nations Cup winning squad, although including 103 cap Ma’a Nonu looks unlikely.
Head coach Seilala Mapusua has revealed his plans to RugbyPass as he plots his nation’s challenge in France in 2023 where they are in Pool D with England, Argentina, Japan, and Chile.
Mapusua hopes to have Bristol’s Luatua and Sopoaga, the former Highlanders and Wasps outside half who is now with Lyon in France, available for their November tests which see the Pacific Islands nation take on Italy, Georgia and Romania.
Many Samoan fans would also like to see 40-years-old All Blacks legend Nonu drafted in but Mapusua said: “Ma’a Nonu has been on Samoa’s wish list for about 20 years but he is now 40 years old and we have some great mid-fielders coming through and it is about enhancing what we have started.”
Having beaten hosts Fiji, Tonga and Australia A to win the PNC, Mapusua is eager to test his players against Tier 1 nations but has to be content with just one fixture against Italy who are currently World ranked No14 which puts them three places below Samoa.
The Samoan squad flew under the radar at the PNC as attention was focused on Tonga who were featuring Israel Folau, Charles Piutau and Malaki Fekitoa who had all switched countries following World Rugby’s new qualification criteria that allows a player to play for another country – if he satisfies the criteria – having not played international rugby for three years.
Sopoaga won the last of his 16 All Blacks caps in 2017 while Luatua won his 15th cap for New Zealand in 2016 against Italy and they would join a Samoa squad that already includes recent arrivals Fritz Lee, who has enjoyed stellar career with Clermont Auvergne and former New Zealand U20 cap Jordan Taufua who plays at Lyon.
The squad has been bolstered by the inclusion of players now part of the Moana Pasifika Super Rugby Pacific squad which has ensured the step up to test rugby is not so daunting.
Adding Sopoaga and Luatua is the next step for Mapusua in his bid to change perceptions about Samoa and make them a viable option for dual-qualified players, particularly in New Zealand. The 33 times capped former Samoa centre told RugbyPass: “Steven Luatua would be a great acquisition for us and it will be a good problem to have him, Fritz Lee, Jordan Taufua, Henry Stowers all available with the guys who are already important members of our squad.
“Lima is a possibility as well and it is about working with the guys who have a genuine desire to be part of the squad. It is not just about throwing ex-All Blacks in there when they are eligible.
“Jordan was always eligible for Samoa and last year he was injured and it was great to finally get him on the pitch. We also have Fritz Lee from Clermont and having those two with their vast experience was awesome because they are class players and with the eligibility changes doesn’t mean everything changes overnight but there are a few more I am speaking to that will be if fit and ready and we will see them in November.”
Mapusua’s aim is to make Samoa the first choice for young qualified players and he believes getting Moana Pasifika into the Super Rugby Pacific tournament has been key to helping win the PNC in Fiji.
He added: “We wouldn’t have gone to Fiji if we didn’t think we could have won the Cup. The key for us was that it would have to be a squad effort to win it and we knew that there was a lot of talk about Tonga and Fiji and that Australia A would be tough and had to make the belief was there for us. We pulled tight really early and got the boys to understand their purpose and it narrow our focus and build into the games.
“The boys are in much better condition than we have been in the past thanks to Moana Pasifika and while that first season was always going to be tough for them having seven months as a professional player and living and breathing that was massive for us. The players weren’t coming straight from club rugby to test rugby and it allowed us to spend less time getting the boys to catch up and more time on how we wanted to play.
“We have tests in November with Italy, Georgia and Romania and between now and the World Cup our only Tier One match is with Italy which is frustrating. We would love a few harder games and we are trying to organise some outside the test windows but bringing all our guys together is tough. I can only focus on how to keep improving our squad.
“The only way to change perceptions about Samoa is through our results and one of the key areas since I took this role was to create something players want to be part of. Pulling on heartstrings, making themselves available for Samoa – I want every eligible player to choose the blue jersey. I hope we are on that pathway where boys chose to represent Samoa before any other country.”
Having won the PNC while New Zealand lost a home test series to Ireland suggests Mapusua could offer under-fire All Blacks coach Ian Foster a few tips about winning international matches. “I am still contacting him for advice and I haven’t been in the coaching game long enough to give anyone advice. I am just happy to keep learning.”
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