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'We still can do something special and upset a team like England'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Michael Alaalatoa looked quite the picture strolling through the mixed zone in Toulouse on Thursday night. Samoa’s hopes of making the quarter-finals for the first time since 1995 had just been dashed, Japan taking advantage of Ben Lam’s 47th-minute red card to go on and edge the Pool D fixture 28-22, but the squad were all fetchingly decked out post-game in their traditional lava-lava dress which was accessorised by an eye-catching red beaded necklace that meant the world to those wearing it.

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“This is called an ula fala,” explained the tighthead proudly in an exclusive chat with RugbyPass, the clock nudging towards one in the morning and the capacity crowd long since gone out the exits and back into the ‘Pink City’.

“It’s a necklace that is worn by the chiefs back home in Samoa. It’s now become a customary item of clothing that you wear for special events, so for us as representatives of Samoa, we wear this to represent our culture.

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“Culture is everything to us. It’s who we are and, to be honest, it’s a thing that is easy for us. It comes naturally to us because, as Samoans, it’s ingrained in our language, in our song and dance, and in our culture with our ceremonies and things like that.

“Our players come from all over the world but when we come together we all have this in common, Samoan, and the connection is just natural. It’s not manufactured. A lot of club teams would have to create a culture for everyone to buy into. It’s quite easy for us. The next thing is for that to translate into winning big games.”

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The benefits of ‘culture’ for the Australian-born Alaalatoa, whose father was part of the 1991 Samoan World Cup squad, were evident in a tricky second half against the Japanese. Samoa were down 8-17 when Lam was binned by referee Jaco Peyper for a tackle to the head that was upgraded to a red card offence by the foul play review officer and they could so easily have fallen away to a heavy defeat.

Instead, they ‘won’ the remaining 33 minutes 14-11, enough to net the losing bonus point that has them in third place before Saturday’s South American derby between Argentina and Chile in a pool where England have been declared uncatchable at the top. What did for Samoa versus the Japanese was only playing in fits and starts, similar to their frustrating 10-19 loss last week to Argentina in Saint-Etienne. So near yet so far.

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“I felt like Japan started the game very well,” reflected Alaalatoa, who 19 weeks ago was himself on the receiving end of a Peyper red card when Leinster lost the Heineken Champions Cup final to La Rochelle in Dublin. “They kicked very well, put the ball behind our forwards. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to exit our area clean enough, gave away a few penalties and a few tries that were well within our control.

“Credit to Japan for being able to capitalise on those opportunities but for us we need to be able to be an 80-minute team. We showed glimpses of what we could do today, as we have the whole competition, but it was disappointing that we weren’t able to do it for the full 80.

“To give ourselves credit we fought back well. The game was never lost (until the final whistle). We were always staying in the contest and in the end, it put us in a position to win the game but playing catch-up at this level of rugby is very tough. You need to be able to start well and play well for 60 minutes minimum. We seem to come right in the second half when our backs are against the wall. If we can start the way we finish we would be a different team.”

Samoa have one more opportunity to get it right, versus pool-toppers England in Lille on October 7, and although the second qualifying place from the group is now set to be a straight shootout between Japan and Argentina in Nantes, the Pacific Islanders know they can still generate big headlines if they grab an upset result against Steve Borthwick’s team.

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“The good thing is we don’t play until next Saturday week so we have the weekend to take the learnings from this game, let the disappointment digest a little and when we come back together on Sunday we will be able to look forward to England,” summarised Alaalatoa, the former Super Rugby title-winning Crusaders forward who has been based in Ireland since 2021.

“I’m fully confident we still have the team that is able to do something special and upset a team like England. It’s still a long way away, we have got a few days before we come together but I’m still confident we can do a job.”

Their efforts at France 2023 are being cheered every step of the way from very far away back home. “We played a few games in Samoa before we left so they have been following us. We have a great support base back home and we are disappointed and upset that we weren’t able to do what we set out to do for them. Samoa have been crying out for the team to make the quarter-finals for a long time.

“After tonight we have made it very, very hard for ourselves to do that unfortunately but we still have an opportunity next week to upset one of the best teams in the world and put a performance in that our people back home can be proud of.”

What has Samoa being together like a club team the past three-and-a-bit months mean to the 32-year-old Alaalatoa, who is squad co-captain at these finals along with fellow forward Chris Vui? There’s a noticeable pause before an answer comes. “It’s hard to put into words,” he admitted.

“Like, we very rarely get this amount of time together and it’s unfortunate that it’s only every four years that we get a big build-up to a competition like this. The more games against quality opposition like Japan, Argentina, England that we have the better we will be.

“The games up until this World Cup we have only played one tier one nation. I’m not making excuses for tonight, we should have been better and we weren’t. But I am saying I know with more games against quality opposition we would be a much better team.

“I am always hopeful (that will happen) but in saying that, if we can play well and upset these big teams, then teams are going to want to play us as well. I’m aware with that comes a responsibility to play well for these teams to want to play us as well. We still have a good opportunity next week to play England and play really well and cause an upset and then that would open doors for us in the future.”

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2 Comments
D
Don M 257 days ago

Start with another half back.

J
Jen 257 days ago

GO SAMOA!

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