Time is short, but Steve Jackson has lofty ambitions with Manu Samoa.
The head coach of World Rugby’s No 16-ranked side has been in the job less than a month but flies out this weekend with his Australasian-based players and management to link with the European professionals for a three-Test northern tour.
It is not, by any stretch, a cutting-edge itinerary: USA (in Spain), Georgia and then Spain, all tier two rugby nations.
“We don’t want to be playing tier two teams, but that’s just the reality of the situation we’re in at the moment. This mini-tournament is important to build confidence heading to the Rugby World Cup.
“On this tour, we want to establish how we want to play the game and the standards we want. But the World Cup is what I am employed to do,” says Jackson, whose two-year contract as the Blues forwards coach ended in disappointment.
There was another role in the pipeline, but then a chance meeting between his Blues colleague Al Rogers, who was working with Hawke’s Bay at the time, and former referee Chris Pollock, set in motion the swift chain of events which led to Jackson taking the Manu job. Some would see it as a poisoned chalice given what has happened to Alama Ieremia (2017) and Dicky Tafua (2018).
But Jackson is nothing but excited about what lies ahead. Manu Samoa qualified in July for the World Cup. Now there are just seven Tests before they lock horns with Russia on September 24, 2019. Not since Pat Lam’s boys in 1995 has a Manu team qualified for the RWC quarter-finals. That is too long when you consider the talent often at their disposal.
“I’d be silly if I didn’t (aim for the quarters). I made it clear to the players and management group that we were not going there just to compete and be happy with our performances if we lose. We are going to win and to win as many games as possible. It’s about me making those players believe they are good enough to beat these teams,” he adds.
Jackson talks of bringing the “fear” back into the Manu jersey. He wants players who are passionate for their homeland and their team.
“Privileged is the word. To be a head coach again, for an international side and going to a World Cup, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
His 31-man squad had to be lodged with World Rugby on October 5, within a few days of him getting his feet under the desk. There was little time to sift local talent – Samoa A won the Americas Pacific Challenge days later – but they could come into reckoning next year.
Samoa coach, the great Manu wing Brian Lima, has already let Jackson know publicly about the need to promote Samoan-based players where possible.
Chris Vui, who would have been skipper, having worn the captaincy armband for Jackson with North Harbour in 2016, is out with a groin injury, while halfback Kahn Fotuali’i is only just back from long-term injury. Brandon Nansen of the Dragons has been cleared of concussion symptoms after his place was in doubt.
Scarlets centre Kieron Fonotia is unavailable and is believed to have a clause in his club contract that removes him from November international selection.
“There is an international window in November where all players are available, but in some instances you have to give them leeway with their clubs,” says Jackson, diplomatically.
First-five Tusi Pisi’s selection has aroused some public comment. The 36-year-old was first selected by Michael Jones for the Manu way back in 2002 but did not play his first Test until 2011. He now has 34 internationals to his name and is plying his trade for the Bristol Bears.
He and Auckland-based D’Angelo Leuila are the No 10s. There are few others eligible and up to the mark.
“I’ve known Tusi a long time,” says Jackson, who played club rugby with Pisi at Massey in 2004. “He’s a highly professional rugby player and athlete. He has come in for some criticism, but I back myself as a coach to get the best out of Tusi.”
The same goes for other players, including uncapped men like Tasman hooker Ray Niuia, North Harbour lock Ben Nee-Nee, Hawke’s Bay midfielder Stacey Ili and Bay of Plenty second-rower Kane Leaupepe. The latter, in particular, was in fine Mitre 10 Cup form. He is the sort of youngish, dynamic, ball-winning lock that Jackson wants to see in his pack come RWC 2019.
‘The door’s not closed on anyone. But I have a way we want to play the game. It’s about relentless work ethic. We’re going to hang in there and play until the 80th minute. To play that way, you’ve got to be in condition. It’s not just about the guys who have been there before,” declares Jackson.
Funnily enough, one of those who has been there, done that, is loose forward Faifili Levave, now 32, and straight from Wellington club rugby via Japan. Jackson rates him highly and Levave was one of the first he called for this tour.
The hope is that this group return to their franchise or club, spread the word about how the Manu has a good thing going and Jackson can then call on a large group of players from which to plan his assault on RWC 2019. Among the coaching group is Rogers, scrum coach Ben Afeaki and former Wallaby Chris Latham, who provides the continuity with the Tafua regime.
Jackson has forged a solid reputation with Counties Manukau, North Harbour and the Blues, despite the 2018 output of the latter. He is as well qualified as any to guide Manu Samoa back to the heights they have known only sporadically since the glory days of 1991.
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