Manu Samoa head coach Steve Jackson has named a 33-man squad for the upcoming Pacific Nations Cup, three months ahead of the World Cup in Japan.
The team features eight new caps, with plenty of players coming from the domestic Super 9 competition, which had impressed Jackson in terms of playing quality.
Among the names from the local league include Savai’i Vikings prop Alofaaga Sao, Southern Tornadoes flanker Tofatuimoana Solia and Aana Chiefs wing Johnny Vaili.
“I’ve watched it over the last couple of weeks, the semis and the final and previously a couple of round robin fixtures as well and the quality of rugby over here in that Super 9 competition is quite outstanding,” Jackson said.
“I think it’s probably one of the better finals I’ve seen for a long long time, in terms of club, that I witnessed on the weekend and out of the semi finals we picked up a prop in Alofaaga Sao – he’s only 21 and he’s got a bright future in the game.
“We can always look at New Zealand and Australia and other clubs around the world but I think we’ve got the same sort of quality players here and it’s just about us now as a coach and a management group giving them the tools so they can be as good as they possibly can be, not only in the PNC but the Rugby World Cup and beyond.”
The squad also contains its usual high number of offshore-based players, with France-based trio Senio Toleafoa (Nevers), Afa Amosa and UJ Seuteni (both Bordeaux) earning their first call-ups alongside Western Force flanker Henry Stowers, current Samoan Sevens stars Tofatuimoana Solia and Johnny Vaili, and ex-sevens representative Belgium Tuatagaloa.
Jackson conceded that this was not the strongest squad he could have selected for the pre-World Cup tournament, but said all players in the squad will have the opportunity to push their case for the global showpiece event, which kicks off in September.
“There’s obviously some visible people that aren’t named in this Pacific Nations Cup squad which will be available for the World Cup,” he said.
“But it was a decision made by the coaches for us to make sure that when we go to Rugby World Cup we know that we’ve got 40-plus players that can play at international level and will be ready for Rugby World Cup.
“Hence the reason why this is just a PNC squad. There are players who will be coming into this tournament knowing that they will be fighting it out for a position with someone else.”
Some players were unavailable for the Pacific Nations Cup due to club commitments, while one unnamed player, who has previously represented Samoa at a World Cup, has already ruled himself out of contention.
“To be honest we’ve had one player, to look after his financial security, turn the opportunity down to go to a Rugby World Cup purely because the financial benefit to him is just what he needs to do for him and his family,” Jackson said.
“I can understand that. He’s already been to a World Cup with Manu Samoa and you can only support these players with the decision that they make and it’s an opportunity for someone else to step in and take his opportunity.”
The former Blues assistant coach and North Harbour head coach said other players with dual nationality, such as Worcester-bound Blues fullback Melani Nanai and Leicester-bound Crusaders flanker Jordan Taufua, both of whom represented Samoa at U20 level and have spent time training with the All Blacks, remain on the radar for World Cup selection.
“There’s certain players that have to make decisions because they are dual eligibility and we’ve made contact with a few players in regards to that,” Jackson said.
“But we don’t have to name a Rugby World Cup squad until I think it’s September the 3rd so we’ve still got plenty of time for some of the players that we’ve communicated to that we’d like to have them on board.
“But it’s really important that we have depth in our squad… We’ve cast our net far and wide and we’re trying to look at as many people to make themselves available for Manu Samoa.
No permanent captain has yet been named for the 2019 campaign, although Chris Vui and Jack Lam, who both skippered the side last year, have been included in the squad.
The squad will assemble in Auckland in three weeks’ time before facing Tonga in Apia on July 27, and then the United States and Fiji in Suva in the following weeks.
Following the completion of the Pacific Nations Cup on August 10, Samoa will face a New Zealand Heartland XV on August 27 as part of the Pasifika Challenge II double-header at Eden Park in Auckland.
They will then go on to face the Wallabies at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney on September 7, two-and-a-half weeks prior to their World Cup opener against Russia in Kumagaya on September 24.
Manu Samoa squad for the 2019 Pacific Nations Cup:
Forwards: Elia Elia (Harlequins), Seilala Lam (Perpignan), Motu Matu’u (London Irish), Ray Niuia (Highlanders), Paul Alo-Emile (Stade Francais), James Lay (Bristol Bears), Jordan Lay (Bristol Bears), Logovi’i Mulipola (Leicester Tigers), Alofaaga Sao (Savai’i Vikings)*, Hisa Sasagi (Blues), Kane Le’aupepe (Hurricanes), Filo Paulo (unattached), Senio Toleafoa (Nevers)*, Chris Vui (Bristol Bears), Afa Amosa (Bordeaux)*, Piula Fa’asalele (Perpignan), Jack Lam (unattached), Faifili Levave (unattached), Tofatuimoana Solia (Southern Tornadoes)*, Henry Stowers (Western Force)*.
Backs: Pele Cowley (Ponsonby), Auvusa Faleali’i (Nevers), Dwayne Polotaivao (Doncaster), AJ Alatimu (Western Force), UJ Seuteni (Bordeaux)*, Kieron Fonotia (Scarlets), Ray Lee-Lo (Cardiff Blues), Alapati Leilua (Bristol Bears), Henry Taefu (Western Force), JJ Taulagi (Mont-de-Marsan), Ashee Tuala (Northampton Saints), Belgium Tuatagaloa (unattached)*, Johnny Vaili (Ana Chiefs)*.
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