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FEATURE Rugby World Cup stories: Chickens, 'The Terminator' and Ian Rush - How Samoa shocked the world

Rugby World Cup stories: Chickens, 'The Terminator' and Ian Rush - How Samoa shocked the world
10 months ago

Cardiff Castle, late one October night in 1991. A group of hulking Pacific Islanders huddled on the street, the old stone battlements looming above them. These men had grown restless, cooped up in a foreign land, cut off from home and familiarity and worried about the modest allowance they’d been given to sustain themselves. Samoan tala did not go far in British shops.

They had travelled all this way to compete in their country’s first Rugby World Cup. The privilege filled them with pride, but the pressure of carrying the hopes of a rugby-obsessed nation weighed heavily on their shoulders. Their opening pool match, against heavily-fancied Wales, was one of the last to be held. Wales were expected to win comfortably, especially on their own patch. The Samoans spent ten days in Cardiff. Preparing. Waiting. Stewing. Ten days felt like ten weeks. Too much time for minds to wander and nerves to fray and frustrations to simmer.

In the early nineties, Manu Samoa were Western Samoa. The late Peter Fatialofa was their captain and talisman, a figure of Comic-book strength and deep emotional intelligence. On the eve of the match, ‘Fats’ sensed the malcontent and led his team to the streets. He never said as much, but you fancy the symbolism of the castle was not lost on him. He had warriors to ready for battle and a Welsh fortress to storm. Tears were shed that evening; emotions laid bare. The players spoke about their people and their cause. Fats stood before them like a colossus.

“This is what we’re here for,” he said. “A lot of people think we’re going to get smashed. They’re all saying we won’t make the quarter-finals. That’s fuel for us. I want you to play for Samoa – that’s all I want you to do. We’ve done the hard yards, we’ve done the training. Now it’s showtime.”

SAMOA RUGBYThe late Peter Fatialofa was an inspirational figure for Samoa. (Photo by David Rogers/ALLSPORT)

Several months earlier, Timo Tagaloa sat in his mother’s Auckland living room, facing two big men and one seriously big decision. Tagaloa was a huge specimen, muscles built during four years of top-tier college football with Utah State University. He had awesome running power and searing speed to go with it. In today’s game, he’d have been an All Black many times over. Back then, before a whole battalion of substitutes were rolled out each weekend, he was 26 and uncapped. Sir John Kirwan and Terry Wright held the wing berths in an unshakeable grip.

Tagaloa was raised in New Zealand, but his fabric was pure Samoan. His parents moved to give their children a brighter start in life than they had enjoyed.

Opposite the Tagaloas sat Peter Schuster, coach of Western Samoa, and his younger brother John, a dual Samoan and All Black international.

Come on, cuz, you ain’t never gonna be an All Black – come play for Samoa!

“They were a little bit nervous,” Tagaloa says. “They just said, ‘would you like to play for Samoa? You fit what we need, we’d love you to play for us.’ I said, ‘sign me up’.

“My family were all crying. They were so happy this was finally happening. Our parents sacrificed a lot to be in New Zealand. They left Samoa to give us a better life, and we grew up enjoying that better life.”

In the lead-up to the tournament, Schuster and Fatialofa embarked on a major recruitment drive. A young Pat Lam was teaching schoolchildren and shining for Auckland alongside Fatialofa. Lam played against a touring Samoa team and was easily enticed to join the World Cup bid. Fatialofa got stuck in to another team-mate, Apollo ‘The Terminator’ Perelini. Perelini remembers the conversation going something like this: ‘Come on, cuz, you ain’t never gonna be an All Black – come and play for Samoa!’ They got the giant Junior Paramore and Mark Birtwistle’s dynamism; the brilliant Frank Bunce and Stephen Bachop added class and guile.

Some of these men would become All Blacks, before World Rugby rules prevented such close crossover. Bunce played 55 Tests and is still lauded as one of the finest centres New Zealand has seen. Tagaloa was chosen for non-cap matches but never quite seized that elusive full international.

Lam Samoa Wales
Pat Lam in action on his Samoan Test debut versus Wales (Photo by Mark Leech/Getty Images)

Schuster laced their New Zealand-honed nous through a core of local Samoans. Nineteen-year-old Brian Lima played in his first of five World Cups. ‘The Chiropractor’ was wispy and lean in those days, but still mighty dangerous. Freddie Tuilagi, the eldest of that great dynasty, was among the touring party. They had thoroughbred forwards in Stan To’omalatai and Sila Vaifale, and talent coursed through a backline featuring Matt Vaea and To’o Vaega.

These were the boys who scribed their own proud chapter in rugby history, who reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup, captivating the sport and rubbishing any perceptions about what they were and how good they could be.

“A lot of the people from around the world were thinking, ‘who are Samoa? Where is it? They’re just a small island above New Zealand’,” Tagaloa says. “It helped us put Samoa on the map.

“Every newspaper was saying we were going to get smashed. There wasn’t a lot of focus or pressure on us. We could prepare without everybody and their dog around us with cameras.

“We were underdogs but we liked that. It gave us that relief; we weren’t pressured, we went out and did our jobs.”

People were putting in livestock, chickens, just to express their contribution to Manu Samoa.

To reach the promised land of a maiden World Cup, Samoa first had to scramble up the foothills. The squad stayed in church halls, sleeping on bunk beds, as they trained for the qualifiers. They beat Japan, South Korea and Tonga in their regional tournament, fared well against New Zealand’s NPC teams when they came up against Lam and co, defeated Fiji and even sank the Wallabies in a non-cap international.

Matt Vaea was their mercurial scrum-half and goalkicker. He was playing club rugby in Italy, but came home to answer his nation’s call. The Samoan union was not wealthy. To raise funds, the players turned to their people. They embarked on a ‘wheelbarrow run’ known as an uilipaelo, pushing the barrow from village to village. When the jamboree reached a player’s home village, it would be he shunting the barrow along. Locals put in whatever money they could, even if they had virtually nothing to give. Some players remember an elderly disabled woman hauling herself out onto the street to hand over a few precious tala.

“People were putting in livestock, chickens, just to express their contribution to Manu Samoa. That was really special,” Vaea says. “The wheelbarrow run was about engaging with the community to get as much support as we could. The people, the community, the country, got behind the team.

“We also travelled to American Samoa to see the eastern side. People were throwing cash, American dollars, as we were doing the Siva Tau farewell. It was a massive occasion for the country.

“It wasn’t so much about the cash because most families didn’t have cash in hand. It was about seeing the boys, the pride, meeting your Manu Samoa heroes. Money came into it much later. It was about the recognition of local people of what rugby meant to them.”

Matthew Vaea of Western Samoa throw the ball out
Matt Vaea was Samoa’s starting scrum-half at the 1991 World Cup. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Allsport)

Lam later referred to Samoa as “the poor cousins” of New Zealand – “we had the same sponsors and about a quarter of the gear”.

“We travelled to the World Cup with the All Blacks on a plane from Auckland,” Vaea goes on. “They were in business class, we were in economy class. The food in economy ran out so the All Blacks boys were bringing us trays down from business. We got to Heathrow and all the media attention was on the All Blacks. The boys in blue got on a bus to Cardiff. A few days later, we changed history.”

Though poor in resources, Samoa were rich in heart. There were no mobile phones and no email, so good luck messages were faxed to the team hotel. Not in dribs and drabs, but in great sputtering tsunamis of paper. The story goes, the hotel fax machine broke down twice due to the sheer volume of incoming correspondence.

“The whole wall of our team room was covered with faxes from relatives, government, people from Samoa,” Vaea says. “That was special. Every day you would see the faxes arrive and the well-wishes on the wall. The walls were plastered. That really resonated with us what it meant to be representing Samoa on the world stage.”

Back home, a frenzy was unfolding. Television sets were scarce commodities, so the Wales match was beamed on to a makeshift big screen inside Apia Park, the national stadium. Kick-off was at 1am local time and yet people swarmed to the ground in their droves to glimpse the unmissable. Some walked for mile upon mile, long into the night, then faced the same journey home by foot in the morning. Over 8,000 thronged inside the arena, sitting cross-legged on the turf trodden to pulp by the very heroes they had come to see.

The tournament organisers had said, ‘there is only one war chant in the world – the All Blacks haka. You guys can’t do the Siva Tau.’

“When we heard that was happening, wow…” Tagaloa says. “We were like supermen. Watch out, Wales. It totally lifted our spirits, man. It brought tears to our eyes.”

When Fatialofa took his brothers to the castle, the battle lines were drawn. The Samoans had been told they would not be allowed to perform their Siva Tau challenge, to protect the prestige of the New Zealand haka. Fatialofa had other ideas.

“The tournament organisers had said, ‘there is only one war chant in the world – the All Blacks haka. You guys can’t do the Siva Tau.’,” Vaea recalls.

“Peter Fatialofa, God rest his soul, said, ‘who is going to stop us, in front of 40,000 fans?’ Fats was on the verge of being an All Black but he chose to lead his country. He was well connected, respected, and a very down to earth boy. He didn’t mince his words. He was a guy who really put you on the honesty plate: ‘Remember what you are here for; you are here to represent Samoa, nothing else’. It was about who you were representing, not about you. He had a huge heart.”

That emotional belonging calcified when the line-up was announced.

“At the jersey presentation, our two inside centres were Keneti Sio and Frank Bunce,” Vaea says. “Keneti Sio had been part of the journey up to that point, one of our hardest hitters, very respected and feared. We found out Frank was playing ahead of him [it was Bunce’s first cap]. Keneti said to Frank, ‘if you have nothing to take to the game, take my heart’.

“Earning that jersey was playing for your mate, let alone playing for your country, making a huge physical and emotional impact.”

The next day, Tagaloa, like Bunce, lingered in the Cardiff Arms Park tunnel, about to play his first game of international rugby.  

“I was like, wow, I used to see this on TV. I’m looking across at Ieuan Evans in the flesh… this is real. When the Welsh sung their anthem and the whole crowd joined in, that got me really nervous. I wanted to dig a hole and jump in. I was in a Rugby World Cup – right now. That hit me.

“When we did the Siva Tau, it calmed our nerves. We wanted to keep the ball in the forwards and wear them down but they had a big forward pack so we had to change tack and let the backs cause havoc. The turning point was when Apollo [Perelini] hit Phil May.”

Phil May
Phil May with his arm in a sling looks dejected on the bench as Samoa defeat Wales. (Photo by Rusell Cheyne/Allsport)

“Hit”, in this sense, is like describing War and Peace as a pamphlet. Understatement of the century territory. Perelini put three Welshmen in hospital with a series of bone-cracking, sense-scrambling shots. Still just 22, he fizzed around the Arms Park leaving a trail of destruction and agony in his slipstream. ‘The Terminator’ was born.

Perelini’s first victim was Phil May, a towering West Walian lock in the winter of his career. May was a mainstay of the Llanelli pack. Battle-hardened and sturdy. No shrinking violet. And yet, rendered a flimsy hatchback in a demolition derby. May galloped round the back of a lineout and then, whack. The Llanelli lighthouse crumbled – backwards, backwards, down, and out of the game. He appeared on the bench in the second half with his left arm in a sling. Richie Collins was invalided off next; Tony Clement nearly cleaved in two by a vicious clobber across the ribs.

The first half was tense and fraught as Perelini started taking bodies. Early in the second, Samoa pounced. Lam thundered clear and fed To’o Vaega who chipped ahead and plunged on the bobbling ball milliseconds before Rob Jones. Samoa savaged Wales in those next ten minutes, pounding the 22 with carry after bruising carry. Then Tagaloa split them down the middle and when he was hauled down deep in the red zone, Fatialofa put Siva Vaifale cantering home up the right.

“Cardiff got a rude awakening,” says Vaea, who kicked eight points. “I’m not sure how much homework Wales did, but they should have known what we had done leading in to that game. We had some cracking players. It was about, remember our families, remember the wheelbarrow, remember the people back in the stadium.

“Apollo wanted to make his mark – he broke a couple of shoulders and collar bones. He wanted to make sure he earned that jersey because of the guys who were sitting on the bench, who were top-class players.”

Vaea’s penalty kept Wales at arm’s length. Western Samoa prevailed 16-13. A seismic result, though in hindsight, with the pedigree in their ranks, perhaps it should not have been billed as such an upset. It did spawn a phrase from rueful Welsh now enshrined in rugby folklore: “Thank goodness we weren’t playing the whole of Samoa!” Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the “poor cousins”.

I wanted to swap my jersey with Campese but he wouldn’t have a bit of it. He turned me down. He just sprinted straight off the field.

“Most of Samoa didn’t sleep for a day, they were just celebrating,” Tagaloa laughs. “The rest of the world realised, ‘these players are for real’.

“It was like the flick of a switch, the media were interested in us, ‘let’s go and interview these players’. I’ve kept a scrapbook of some of the newspaper stuff we did. The media had this perception of what island boys are like. They think we all live on white sands with palm trees. I remember a newspaper shot with some of the boys in their shorts, they’re holding a girl up, and the headline is ‘Pacific Island boys’ or something.

“Some of these Samoan dignitaries turned up. Where were you when we were playing in the qualifying rounds?”

Vaea was staggered by the scenes when the bus drew up outside the hotel.

“We couldn’t get into the hotel. We were escorted off the bus. We went from an empty hotel hours before, to that.

“People wanted to buy everything from us. We took t-shirts with ‘Samoa’ on them and we were selling them for £20. Everybody wanted to be a bit Samoan. People wanted to buy our socks, our t-shirts, anything with ‘Samoa’ on them for any amount. And £20 then was a lot of money.”

Australia lay in wait for the new-found sensations. A team of Galacticos on their way to glory. For David Campese, Michael Lynagh and the rest of the superstars, Samoa presented a major hurdle en route to winning the tournament. So did the biblical downpour at Pontypool Park. Vaea kicked one penalty and missed three more. Lynagh struck three and missed two. The match finished 9-3.

Samoa’s loss to Australia was played in horrendous conditions. (Photo by Gabriel BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Thank goodness it was raining because if the sun was shining we might have gotten a spanking,” Tagaloa says. “The backline was quality – Lynagh, Campese, Jason Little, Tim Horan, with Nick Farr-Jones captain. Big, mobile forward pack. If only Matt had his kicking boots on, we maybe could have beaten them!

“I wanted to swap my jersey with Campese but he wouldn’t have a bit of it. He turned me down. He just sprinted straight off the field, didn’t want anything to do with us. I ended up swapping with Peter Slattery, the reserve half-back.”

Vaea waited nearly two decades for a modicum of green-and-gold revenge.

“It was a very close encounter. Our game plan was to bomb Campese’s side, which I did. I missed three kicks at goal, Lynagh missed a couple… It came down to the wire.

“Twenty years later we beat the Wallabies in Sydney before the 2011 World Cup. I was team manager and I recall we had a presentation to Robbie Deans, their coach. Phil Kearns and Michael Lynagh were in the room with him, and I said, ‘this is payback for 1991’. I can’t repeat what they said to me.”

To guarantee a quarter-final spot, Samoa had to put Argentina away. This was not the Pumas of the modern era with their magnificent backs and barnstorming forwards, but still a serious outfit.

Tagaloa floored them. The beast on the wing scored two fabulous tries, the second an irresistible surge that trampled three Argentines into the Sardis Road dirt. On the other wing, Lima seared in for a brace of his own.  

“Argentina had some big forwards and kept it tight in the mauls. We had to get the ball out of the scrum quickly. Steve Bachop directed us around.

“Frank Bunce drew his player and put me into a gap to score my first try. The second was unplanned, I came outside Steve and was able to read what was going on. I didn’t realise I’d gone through three players until Frank told me there were three guys sprawled along the ground.”

There was aggro too, plenty of it. Junior Paramore was nearly decapitated by a wild swinging arm at the tail of a lineout. Play on, said the referee. But when Mata’afa Keenan and Pedro Sporleder started slugging, each was sent off.

“Keenan got the red, but his second-row partner Mark Birtwistle was the instigator!” Vaea says. “Birty was a streetfighter and Keenan was a prison warden, so those guys weren’t going to take any nonsense from anyone.”

Samoa were through. The unfancied, little-known islanders had stupefied Wales, run the Wallabies close and swept Argentina aside. They journeyed north to Edinburgh for a quarter-final date with Scotland.

“We got on the plane and all these people in red boarded,” Vaea says. “We were thinking it must be another team – definitely not the Welsh. It was Liverpool FC.

“I remember sitting next to Ian Rush, the two number nines sitting beside each other. I didn’t know who he was. We exchanged autographs and I realised later it was him.”

Boarding that plane to Scotland, it was already a success. We felt we had done Samoa proud.

The Samoan campaign was gathering pace and admirers at a prolific rate, but the contest was underwhelming. Scotland, coached by the iconic duo of Sir Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer, had a plan to smother their strike runners and move the ball swiftly to avoid the same crippling fate as the Welsh. They blew Samoa away with two early scores and a 13-3 lead at the break which, in the days of four-point tries, left the visitors staring up a cliff face.

“Going to Scotland was a completely different kettle of fish,” Tagaloa says. “Scotland knew to starve our backs and keep it in the forwards. The pace of the game was faster. Our fitness was telling, and there was more indiscipline coming in.”

Vaea adds: “They had John Jeffrey, the White Shark, and Gavin Hastings at the back, they had physicality in the forwards and put the ball up which had us backpedalling a lot. On the day we had our chances. Scotland had done their homework, put the ball behind us, and brought a really aggressive game.

“But boarding that plane to Scotland, it was already a success. We felt we had done Samoa proud.”

Thirty-two years on, the Manu Samoans of 1991 remain perched on a national pedestal. They are the standard by which all who pull on the bright blue jersey are judged.

The memories shine even now in those who played, in their love and grief for dear Fatialofa, who died of a heart attack in 2013 at the desperately young age of 54, and even in the names of their children. To’o Vaega called his son Cardiff. Wallaby prop Scott Sio has the quarter-final, and ‘Scotland’, to thank for his own moniker. Father Tavita was a Samoan front-row in 1991. So was Vili Ala’alatoa, whose boys, Allan and Michael, will grace the global showpiece later this year; Allan for Australia and Michael for Samoa, following in their father’s sizeable bootprints.

Samoa's rugby union team manager Matthew
Matt Vaea later became Manu Samoa’s team manager. (Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images)

“People still talk about 1991,” Tagaloa says. “When I meet another Samoan in the street, they recognise me, they’ve got a big smile on their face. Some of the people in Samoa had named their babies after me. Like, what?! We set the foundation for the Samoan teams to come.”

Vaea moved home from Italy and settled in Apia, where he is now chief executive officer of Samoa’s Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee.

“I worked for Samoa Tourism doing stats just to have a job,” he says. “Training was at 6am and you lifted weights, although we didn’t have gyms, just three weights stations. We tried to earn money in the morning, then go to training at Apia Park in the afternoon.

“You came back here from the World Cup and you were at ground level, no matter if you were a Manu Samoa player. You still had to earn a living for your family.”

Tagaloa’s story is more profound still. He played in over 30 non-cap fixtures for Samoa and for New Zealand Sevens. He lit up the provincial scene year upon year, coming just about as close to breaching the All Black threshold as is possible without actually doing so. His mental health plummeted, when mental health was not something rugby players spoke about over coffee. Even as recently as the mid-nineties, it was not okay, to not be okay.

I was at the point where I wanted to commit suicide because I didn’t feel worthy of playing rugby.

Tagaloa placed such importance on the game that it drove him close to suicide. Finding Christianity put sport in perspective. Faith, not rugby, became his pillar. Today, he works as a sports consultant for a ministry, using religion to help young athletes navigate their turbulent lives. Those times with Samoa, upsetting apple carts on the other side of the world, have a special place in his heart.

“When I look back, I really wanted to appease other people. That’s why I played rugby. I wanted approval and admiration because that fuelled me. I had the struggle of trying to maintain that, week in and week out.

“I would read the media a lot, when they were cutting me up it affected my performance. I played high school rugby with Michael Jones, people were saying I was going to be an All Black. I went straight to senior rugby from school and an article titled ‘a star is born’. There was pressure. The mental part played a big part in how I performed.

“I was at the point where I wanted to commit suicide because I didn’t feel worthy of playing rugby, I felt I was letting people down, I didn’t feel I should even be around. That changed when I was able to have a personal relationship with the Lord. When I invited Christ into my life, sure, I wanted to achieve All Black status, but I realised it really wasn’t that important.

“That achievement with Samoa will be with me a long time, but my faith came first. It really helped me to understand reality. Rugby is a significant part of my life but it’s not what defines me.”

After the loss at Murrayfield, Vaea made a pit-stop in Italy to thank his club for their support, and then returned to Samoa for the grandest of homecomings. A people enraptured by a group of their fondest sons. The islands’ profile raised higher than any ambassador could ever hope to muster.

“It was about people staking claim to what these rugby players had done. It was more than rugby. It was about lifting a nation. People knew where Samoa was as a destination, people tried to come here and play footie. We had the Springboks come here, Queensland come here, Super Rugby teams much later. To be recognised as a flag-bearer to this day is a huge honour.”


1 Comment
Pablo 323 days ago

Thank you so much for these awesome articles, Jamie.

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