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Samoa add another weapon to their World Cup armoury

By Chris Jones
TBILISI, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 12: Manu Samoa staff stands for the national anthem during the Autumn International match between Georgia and Samoa at Dinamo Arena on November 12, 2022 in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Theo McFarland, whose outstanding season at Saracens was ended by an anterior cruciate ligament injury, is on course to add his talents to the most powerful Samoan squad ever assembled at a Rugby World Cup and that is bad news for pool opponents England, Argentina, Japan and Chile.

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Coach Seilala Mapusua confirmed to RugbyPass from Apia that McFarland is in the country and already running and will feature in the Pacific Nations Cup tournament which leads into the final World Cup warm up match with Ireland in Bayonne on August 26.

McFarland played in nine matches in the Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup last season but suffered his serious injury in training in December and missed the club’s play off final triumph over Sale at Twickenham. However, his progress towards full fitness has been good and Mapusua is eager to add the former basketball player’s skills to a squad that has been bolstered by the inclusion of former All Blacks All Blacks Lima Sopoaga (32), Charlie Faumuina (36), Steven Luatua (32) along with ex-Wallabies play maker Christian Leali’ifano (35) and USA Eagles prop Titi Lamositele (28) who have made use of the change to World Rugby’s eligibility rules and switched countries.

They join a squad that also features Chris Vui, Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen, Tim Nanai-Williams, Jordan Taufua, Michael Alaalatoa, Jack Lam and So’otala Fa’aso’o from London Irish. Those players will add experience to a squad that includes a strong contingent from the Moana Pasifika Super Rugby Pacific franchise that has allowed Mapusua to select more professional players with better fitness and game understanding.

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That is why Mapusua believes this is the strongest squad ever assembled for a Samoan World Cup campaign and he will use the exploits of the famous 1991 Cup team (Western Samoa) that made such an impact under the captaincy of Peter Fatialofa to inspire the current group of players who will be based in Apia for the lead up to the Pacific Nations competition. That starts against World Cup pool opponents Japan on July 22 followed by tests with Islands rivals Fiji and Tonga before the squad heads to Bayonne. The 1991 team included Frank Bunce, Pat Lam and Stephen Bachop and reached the quarter-finals, a stage Samoa last made in 1999.

Mapusua is well aware that the players who have switched countries are thirtysomethings and was hoping opponents would “just see us as a bunch of old guys coming to World Cup.”

That is impossible when those joining the Pasifika players include a man mountain like Faumuina who won 50 caps for the All Blacks and has enjoyed trophy winning success in France with Toulouse. The decision of Sopoaga, who has just left Top 14 outfit Lyon and Leali’ifano to switch test allegiance gives Samoa world class decision making in key roles – something Mapusua believes will be crucial in the coming months,

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He explained: “I want us to become a dangerous team and I was hoping to fly under the radar but they may be paying more attention to us after our selections. When you look back to the 1991 Samoa team they are the guys who put us on the rugby map and we aim to take the best prepared team ever to a World Cup and we will be trying to emulate the 91 team.”

“Theo is back on the Island now and is running and is pretty close to a return but we won’t rush him. We are still a month away from our first game and Theo is in a really good place and is an outstanding athlete. He is one of many guys I have been lucky enough to select for this first squad and it’s made competition for places stronger.

“In terms of the guys who have now opted to play for Samoa it was a bit of me going to them and them coming to me. We have been looking at this situation even before the rule was changed and I knew it would be awesome if it happened. Lots of boys have expressed an interest and it has grown the talent pool we can select from.

“There has been a lot of talk with clubs about release of players and it is a challenge we will have going forward although for the most part most clubs are supportive including the French and Bristol. It does shine a light on those clubs when players decide to play for Samoa. Charlie brings incredible knowledge and experience into the squad and it is also refreshing for him. I needed to make sure his reasons aligned with the Samoa squad, they do, and we are really looking forward to him contributing to the growth of the team.

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“We wanted to include Lima last year but he was injured and he was one of my first phone calls when the rule changed. We are finally getting him involved and he is excited as well. Our game management is something I have really tried to target and having Lima and Christian in the squad to be able to handle those pressure moments has lifted the rugby IQ of the team.

“I am sure there are not many rugby players who have experienced a World Cup who wouldn’t jump at the chance of playing at one more in their careers. It is a special moment in our sport and that is another driving force for these guys to put their hands up. Titi has played at two World Cups with the USA and he is someone I approached at Montpellier and looked into his qualification and after talking for a while we got to a place where he was ready.”

While Moana Pasifika finished bottom of the Super Rugby table, Mapusua believes the franchise is going to make a significant contribution to the World Cup squad and Samoan rugby going forward. “I selected 13 Moana boys and it has been huge for me and I am getting a much better athlete and professional player:” he added. “There is still a bit of work to do but in terms of a selection point of view it has made it more competitive and that is very healthy.”

By opting to hold their training camp in Samoa means the strength and conditioning trainers and coaches have to be inventive to overcome any shortage of specialist equipment available on the Islands. This will see the many spring fed water pools used in the recovery process and Mapusua is even considering filling one of them with ice to create and outdoor ice bath.

He said: “It is very important to have the boys here in Samoa to connect with family and their roots and many of them haven’t been back for a while. The weather is 30-35c everyday and so if the boys need to lose weight then that will happen! I have to watch out for their families coming in with food for them.

“We have the basics that are needed for a training camp and will try and accommodate different areas where we don’t have certain resources but we do have natural spring water pools for recovery and we will see if one of the rock pools can be filled with ice. It is getting back to basics and made us think outside the box.

“It’s good to play Japan before we meet in the Cup and it will be a really good barometer to see where we are at and see some guys who haven’t played for a while. With the guys in the Tonga and Fiji squads this is going to be the most viewed Pacific Nations Cup in a while because of the profile of the players. All of the Islands nations have improved greatly and these are our toughest matches against our neighbours.

“Getting to play Ireland in Bayonne in the final warm up game is a great opportunity to face one of the favourites for the tournaments. Our first game is against Chile (September 16) who will have already played against Japan in the Pool and we are giving everyone in the tournament the respect they deserve. We have four very tough games in France and Chile will be targeting us.”

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Shaylen 7 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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