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Samoa boss Mapusua explains delayed arrival of Lima Sopoaga in Apia

By Chris Jones
Samoa boss Seilala Mapusua (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Relocating his family for a new rugby life in Japan is hampering the attempt of Lima Sopoaga, the former All Blacks fly-half, to launch his international career with Samoa ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France. The 32-year-old, who won 16 caps for New Zealand between 2015 and 2017, has played for Lyon in the Top 14 these past two seasons.

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He and his family are currently waiting in France for their visas to allow them to move to Japan, where Sopoaga has signed for Koto Blue Sharks for next season. This has resulted in him training on his own while the rest of the Samoa squad has been preparing for its pre-World Cup matches, a schedule that began with last weekend’s away win over Japan and continues with this Saturday’s clash versus Fiji in Apia.

Head coach Seilala Mapusua told RugbyPass that this visa issue was the reason why the former Wasps No10 was unable to make his debut for Samoa in their 24-22 win in Japan last weekend and that it would be a race against time if the player was to make it to Apia to take on the Fijians.

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Sir Bill Beaumant on refereeing at the World Cup

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Sir Bill Beaumant on refereeing at the World Cup

Instead, it now looks certain that Sopoaga will make his Samoa debut against Tonga in Apia on August 5, joining fellow former All Blacks Charlie Faumuina and Steve Luatua along with ex-Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano in switching countries to play in the World Cup which is kicking off in September in France.

Samoa are in the same pool as England, Argentina, Japan and Chile and their warm-up match schedule will also include facing a Barbarians XV next month in Brive that will be coached by Pat Lam, the Samoan World Cup legend, and Grand Slam champions Ireland in Bayonne.

Mapusua, who saw Leali’ifano kick the winning conversion to defeat 14-man Japan, is excited about adding Sopoaga’s skills to a squad that has won seven of the eight matches under his command and has moved up to the World Rugby No10 ranking for the first time since 2015. However, Samoa now face a Fijiian side that toughed out a home win over Tonga last weekend with star backs Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova making significant contributions along with Albert Tuisue, the Gloucester No8.

Mapusua said: “Lima is waiting for his visa to relocate to Japan. We were hoping he could be available for this weekend. We have been keeping him involved with training and team meetings via our comms platform and he is training in France. He is training on his own – well, he better be! Lima should be available for the Tonga game.

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“Like Fiji, we have a lot of boys with European experience, and we have also added guys like Christian Leali’ifano who kicked that winning conversion from the touchline against Japan. He is a quality human being and has been so good for our group.

“He is a proud Samoan and how often can you get a first in your career at 35 years old making a new Test debut? He is like a kid in a candy store. Theo McFarland (Saracens) and Jordan Taufua are on course to be available shortly.”

Fiji have used the famously tough Sigatoka dunes as part of their preparations while Samoa took to the water to build their own team spirit with the help of a 100ft rowing boat – a fautasi – crewed by the entire squad and coaches making up 50 rowers under the command of Zita Martel, known as the Warrior Queen of the seas in Samoa.

Martel is a legend having become the first woman to take charge of one of the racing boats and the players had to carry the 100ft-long craft to the sea where their initial attempts to row saw them floundering until the Warrior Queen and her drum-beating paddle sorted them out.

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Fautasi means “to be built as one” and that was the theme for the Samoan squad as they learned to stay in time. “We were going around in circles at the start,” explained Mapusua. “Zita is pretty awesome and none of us had any experience on the sea and this was the start of our journey to France and the World Cup.

“We needed to become a team and understand that no matter what your position in the squad we need to be all rowing in the right direction and moving to the same beat or else we won’t get anywhere. Zita gave us the beat for the stroke and banged paddle down and we went out quite a way – 5/10kms – and on the way back we found the rhythm and the boys were really into it.”

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Big-hitting tackles are a Samoan trademark, but they could collect yellow or red cards at the World Cup, particularly with the introduction of a TMO bunker which would mean that every collision would be closely examined. The system aims to prevent players from wrongly being shown a red card and they will be sent to the sin bin instead while TMOs look at replays of the incident in question.

Mapusua said: “We are working really hard on our tackle technique and making sure we are aggressive within the rules and we won’t change the way we play. Physicality is part of our DNA but must make sure we are technically sound.

“Japan really came at us and we were points down early with a player on a yellow card. It was all about problem solving and it was tough playing 14 men because they changed the way they played. Our defence, which is being coached by Tana Umaga, kept them to one try and he has done some awesome work and we need to keep concentrating on those penalties.

“It was scrappy in very humid conditions, but it was a starting point for us and with the new things they are bringing in for the World Cup with the bunker and reviewing possible red card incidents nothing is going to get missed. Every play will be scrutinised and we have to be on the money all the time. To be back in the world top 10 is great and if it means we can get more sponsorship that will be awesome.

“It is a recognition of the hard work a lot of people have put in and it is motivation for us to carry on and keep improving. It is cool to be amongst the top 10 and when I started as head coach my target was to qualify for the World Cup. Playing the Barbarians will be really important because the more time we can spend on the pitch the better and Pat was over here recently for a family reunion. He came down to our training and it was awesome to catch up with him.”

The challenge posed by Fiji will be very physical and a major examination of Samoa’s new-found status in the rankings. Mapusua added: “They have players from the Drua who did really well and also high-quality European guys. We are in for a hell of a game. Recently, Fiji have been the benchmark for Pacific Islands rugby and they continue to be a threat.”

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