Samoa may have had to cancel their end-of-year tour but there’s still one major fixture on the horizon for the island nation, with an exhibition match against the Barbarians at Twickenham for the Killik Cup looming on November 27 as the crescendo to the Autumn Nations Series.
Strict protocols in Samoa – anyone who has contracted Covid isn’t allowed to return to the country for six months – made the tour untenable in its original format and while it’s not an ideal situation, the upcoming clash with the Baabaas will provide head coach Vaovasamanaia Seilala Mapusua with some key intel two years out from the Rugby World Cup in France.
In particular, it will give Mapusua the chance to assess the talent available in the Northern Hemisphere, after getting a good look at the New Zealand, Australia and Samoa-based players who predominantly populated the squad in July.
“Initially when we were planning this game, we were going to use a mix of players from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres,” Mapusua told RugbyPass from his home in Samoa. “We also wanted to take a larger number of Samoa-based players so that they could be exposed to the next level without all the pressures of a test match. That was the initial plan. Obviously, Covid had other ideas and we haven’t been able to do that.”
With the fixture being played outside World Rugby’s test windows, Manu Samoa won’t have access to every player they would like but Top 14 and Uniter Rugby Championship clubs have been generous with releasing many of their representatives, ensuring Mapusua still has access to a wide range of top talent, from international newbies to some of the nation’s most experienced players.
“Being able to get a lot of those European boys available for this game has been amazing,” Mapusua said.
“There’s been a lot of late nights and early mornings for me, chatting to players, chatting to clubs, coaches, basically pleading with them to allow their players to represent their country. It would’ve been nice to get a few of our leaders from the Premiership involved but that’s not been possible so it’s just where we’re at at the moment.
“It’s meant we’ve had to dig really deep but that’s actually been a positive for us, really being able to populate our depth chart.”
With Mapusua living in Samoa, however, he also won’t be able to travel for the test – nor will any of the regular coaching stuff. As with the players, it means Samoa’s depth will be tested in the coaching department – but that will also have a positive impact in the long-run.
I’m really excited for them and I’m excited for our union, that we do have this opportunity to grow our coaching capabilities. For me, I love seeing Samoans lead Samoa.
“This is a prime opportunity to grow our capacity around our coaching and management. Whilst I’ll be kind of in behind the scenes and making sure everything’s running smoothly, I’ve tried to empower our coaches to really take the lead and make sure they’re not just doing what I want and that it is a collective. I’ve given them my vision and big picture things I want to see, and it’s up to them to really fill in that detail and look after things on the ground.
“I’m really excited for them and I’m excited for our union, that we do have this opportunity to grow our coaching capabilities. For me, I love seeing Samoans lead Samoa.
While Mapusua himself isn’t too long retired from the game, Pisi and Johnston have only hung up their boots since the 2019 World Cup while Thompson still makes appearances for NOLA Gold in America’s Major League Rugby. As such, the young coaching group comes with both risks and rewards.
“I told them I’d be on Zoom with them in the box but that’s about it,” Mapusua joked. “Like I said, this is a good opportunity for those guys to grow. There might be mistakes made and that’s the best way for us to learn as a group. If they can lead that week, pick up a few lessons along the way and come out of it as better coaches once they leave, it will mean that as a union we now have more depth in our ranks. That’s success for me.
“What I am worried about is seeing my coaching staff trying to pull on jerseys at halftime and running onto the field but I did tell the guys to bring their boots, to be fair, because once we get into the bubble for the week leading up to the match, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Regardless of whether any of the coaches do take the field, there will still be plenty of experience in Manu Samoa’s ranks, with a handful of players set to sign off from long international careers in the upcoming clash.
“A big one who’ll be saying goodbye is Joe Tekori,” Mapusua revealed. “Joe’s been a massive servant of Samoan rugby. I actually can’t believe he’s still playing.
“He’s putting in quality performances for European and Top 14 champions Toulouse so I think this is a great way for him to finish that chapter of his career with Manu Samoa on his terms and I think it’s well deserved.
“Another guy that will be signing off his international career is Sinoti Sinoti. He had a great stint up at the Falcons so he’ll be very familiar to the UK and European fans.
“There’ll likely be a couple of other guys that I’ve played alongside that will be involved with the team, which is awesome. I think it will be a pretty cool occasion.”
There will be some less experienced up-and-coming talent on show as well, including Junior Wallabies halfback Reece Anapu and Seattle Seawolves fly-half AJ Alatimu, who’s not been involved with Manu Samoa since Mapusua first took over as head coach following the 2011 World Cup.
The Barbarians will do the Barbarians and that’s awesome. The motivation for us to put out a performance that we can be proud of is we have those guys playing their last game as well as some young guys trying to make a name for themselves and secure future selection.
And whilst Barbarians games are typically feel-good, free-flowing try-fests, the coach has made it clear that Manu Samoa won’t be drawn into the festival nature of the game; this is very much a test match from Samoa’s point of view, and the team will be preparing for the game accordingly.
“This is an international game and I’ve made it clear to the players and our coaches and management – who all agree and are thinking along the same lines – that we’re representing our country here and we aren’t the Barbarians,” Mapusua said.
“The Barbarians will do the Barbarians and that’s awesome. The motivation for us to put out a performance that we can be proud of is we have those guys playing their last game as well as some young guys trying to make a name for themselves and secure future selection.
“Those old boys playing their last game want to make sure they’re leaving the team and the jersey in a better place. For the coaches, they want to make sure our performance reflects us as people, as Samoans. We’re very focused on the week and it’s not something that we’re going to take lightly.
“I guarantee it’s not going to be a jolly time for a week where the boys just get together for a bit of a laugh. None of us want to be embarrassed. They’re the flagbearers of our country that week so they’ll be very focused.”
Given the cancelled tour, the Barbarians clash takes on even more importance, especially given the quality of opposition Baabaas coach Dave Rennie will have to call upon. Already confirmed for the squad are World Cup-winning Springboks Malcolm Marx, Steven Kitshoff and Duane Vermeulen, Wallabies Pete Samu, Nic White, James O’Connor and Len Ikitau, and Ireland legend Rob Kearney.
A side similarly built around world champion Springboks and other Southern Hemisphere talent dealt to the All Blacks 25-18 in 2009, illustrating the potential challenge ahead of Manu Samoa – but that presents the perfect opportunity for a side who have had limited matches throughout 2021, and no tier-one opponents to speak of.
“This is at the end of the Autumn internationals and the players that the Baabaas will select will be of the highest quality,” Mapusua said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to be playing against World Cup winners, front-line test players from the UK and Rugby Championship.
“We’re under no illusion; the Barbarians aren’t going to just be throwing the ball around and seeing what happens – although it may look like that at times. There are some quality individuals in the team that play at test level regularly. It’s exciting. We’ll be able to prove a point and to put in a performance that we can be proud of.
“I’m gutted because I’ve played for the Barbarians before and I know what it’s like and I would’ve loved to be there and be able to coach against them but I’m under no illusion; it’s going to be a hell of a task to try and beat them.
“I have some great, great memories with the Baabaas – and a few blank spots too, to be fair. So I’m hoping those guys have a great time together in the lead-up to the game.”
The pressure is off the Barbarians and that’s a dangerous thing, that’s when you’ll see some of them at their best.
While Mapusua obviously will have to cheer his men on from the comfort of his home, he’ll still be involved with the coaching group in the week for which the team are assembled – mostly just checking in to see there aren’t any hiccups in camp.
The fixture, played one week after a smorgasbord weekend that will see New Zealand take on France, England host South Africa, Ireland fight it out with Australia, and Wales and Australia and Scotland and Japan relive their 2019 World pool matches, will mark the last major international game of the 2021 calendar and, all things going to plan, the last year majorly compromised by the global pandemic.
Next season will bring with it a host of new challenges for Samoa – including Mapusua having to whittle down his squad ahead of the 2023 World Cup – but for now, all eyes on the Barbarians at Twickenham.
“The pressure is off the Barbarians and that’s a dangerous thing, that’s when you’ll see some of them at their best. But it should make for an exciting game and a really awesome occasion. You get very few opportunities to play the Barbarians, I’m really hoping that we can add to the legacy and history of the club, as well as our own, and long may it continue.”
Tickets are still available for the November 27 double-header at Twickenham which will see the Barbarians clash with Manu Samoa, followed by the inaugural game between the Barbarian Women and Springbok Women.