Manu Samoa have been tested as their World Cup preparation continues to build momentum, defeating the New Zealand Heartland XV 36-19 at Eden Park in Auckland.
The Heartland XV – made up entirely of amateur players who compete in the Heartland Championship, one tier below the Mitre 10 Cup – took to the challenge of competing against a fully professional Samoan outfit strongly, pushing their Pacific opposition throughout the entire 80 minutes.
While they failed to comprehensively defeat the Heartland XV, Samoa finished the match positively to bolster the full-time scoreline thanks to the efforts of veterans Tim Nanai-Williams, Ed Fidow and Jack Lam.
It was the men in blue who opened the scoring, with debutant prop Michael Alaalatoa crashing over from short range following a lineout 5 metres from the host’s tryline.
It didn’t take long for the Heartland XV to respond, though, with South Canterbury halfback William Wright finishing off a sweeping counter-attacking move instigated by Mid Canterbury flanker Seta Koritamana and former Highlanders fullback Craig Clare.
A conversion from Buller first-five James Lash handed the Heartland XV an unexpected lead after a quarter of an hour, but a well-taken try in the right-hand corner to Northampton Saints outside back Ahsee Tuala from a stunning cut out ball by Nanai-Williams just four minutes later was enough for Samoa to push ahead on the scoreboard.
Tuala bagged his second of the afternoon another seven minutes later, as Alapati Leiua broke the line from halfway to put the Heartland XV on the back foot inside their own territory.
Good distribution skills between the Bristol midfielder, Nanai-Williams and Tuala proved to be too tough to handle for the home side, with the latter strolling across the chalk to put his side out to a 15-7 lead.
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However, the Heartland XV finished the first half strongly, with West Coast second-five Sione Holani capitalising on a solid lineout move 10 metres from the Samoan line three minutes from half-time to bring the score to 15-14 at the break.
Hurricanes lock Kane Le’aupepe got the scoring back underway just two minutes into the second stanza through a scintillating rolling maul which backpeddled the Heartland XV pack 15 metres and into their in-goal area.
That didn’t dampen the Heartland XV’s spirits, as left wing Willie Paia’aua burst through a flurry of tackles to canter 40 metres downfield immediately from the re-start and bring his side to within three points of the Samoans.
A yellow card to North Otago lock Josh Clark – who was pinged for failing to roll away from the ball at a breakdown, yielded a gift five points for Samoa – who took advantage of the Heartland XV’s seven-man forward pack by kicking for a five metre lineout from the ensuing penalty.
From there, it was the Crusaders prop Alaalatoa who dived over from the back of his side’s powerful rolling maul to pick up his second try on his test debut.
Although the Heartland XV kept themselves in the contest and continued to ask questions of the Samoan defence, errors became more prevalent from both sides as the match wore on and replacement players were introduced throughout the second half.
Subsequently, a second yellow card was dished out to the Heartland XV inside the final 10 minutes, with Lash sent to the sin bin for what was deemed to be a deliberate knock down as Samoa broke into the opposition’s half.
It took some time, but Samoa eventually made Lash and the Heartland XV pay for their indiscipline through a cross kick from replacement first-five Tusi Pisi near the middle of the park, which wiped out a plethora of players to set Tuala away in the last play of the game.
Unselfishly, the 30-year-old denied himself a hat-trick of tries by gifting the ball to the supporting Rey Lee-Lo, whose try was converted by Pisi to blow out the scoreboard by more than what the gallant Heartland XV deserved.
Samoa will now face the Wallabies at Bankwest Stadium in Sydney next weekend in their final World Cup warm-up test before their tournament gets underway against Russia in Kumagaya on September 24.
Samoa 36 (Tries to Michael Alaalatoa (2), Ahsee Tuala (2), Kane Le’aupepe, Rey Lee-Lo; 3 conversions to Tusi Pisi)
Heartland XV 19 (Tries to William Wright, Sione Holani, Willie Paia’aua; 2 conversions to James Lash; yellow cards to Josh Clark and Lash)
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