Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

FEATURE Samoan marauders ready to break loose at Rugby World Cup

Samoan marauders ready to break loose at Rugby World Cup
9 months ago

Sir Graham Henry always knew it in his private moments, and he even admitted it publicly. The strength of New Zealand rugby was based on its three different cultural pillars – the Maori, the Pasifika and the Pakeha. The indigenous peoples of Aotearoa, immigrants from the Pacific Islands, and settlers of European descent, taken together, formed an unbeatable mix on the rugby field.

Wallaby head coach Eddie Jones recently suggested (with his tongue rolling towards his cheek) World Rugby’s new, more relaxed eligibility rules will hurt that trifecta: “It’s not good for New Zealand, is it? Because they are losing their three biggest academies [Fiji, Tonga and Samoa].”

There is no question Samoa and Tonga in particular, will benefit immediately from a new rugby reality, where players can now represent two different nations over the course of their international careers. Fiji may yet follow suit in future, although they have chosen not to at this World Cup. Ex-Crusader Seta Tamanivalu – a centre seven years distant with the All Blacks – is the only fruit falling from the newly-generous genealogical ‘tree’.

Jones went on to unpack his thoughts in a recent press conference at Australia’s base in Saint Etienne: “You think back to Fiji in 2007, they had a spectacular World Cup. In the quarter-final against South Africa I think at one stage they were ahead with 20 [minutes] to go, and playing unbelievable rugby.

“Because a lot of the Fijians play in France they enjoy being here. There is a good Fijian population and they are going to play well. The Tongans are the same.

“They enjoy playing in France. Samoa is being well-coached by [Seilala] Mapusua. He’s brought back some older players like [Lima] Sopoaga and [Steven] Luatua. It’s good for world rugby.

“World Rugby gets criticised a lot. If the water is not hot enough in the showers, they get criticised, if the referee has the wrong pants on, they get criticised – but they’ve done a great job in bringing those countries through. Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. It’s healthy for world rugby.

“We need those countries that play a little bit different to be strong and be competitive and bring something different to the table.”

It is not just New Zealand who will suffer from the return of Pasifika players to their ethnic homelands. The Samoan team which ran Ireland to a four-point margin of victory at the Stade Jean Dauger in Bayonne was truly multicultural, in rugby terms. It drew strength from all corners of the globe.

The matchday 23 contained two bona fide ex-All Blacks – the aforementioned Luatua and Sopoaga – with another ex-Wallaby in Christian Leali’ifano on the bench. The run-on XV was a cosmopolitan mix of New Zealand-based players, a majority based in the French Top 14, sprinkled with a pair of English Premiership-based second-rows and a Kiwi now plying his trade in Australia (ex-Chiefs forward Taleni Seu, who currently represents the Waratahs in New South Wales) and the multinational cake was oven-ready.

What does such a sporting tapestry bring? The shorthand is a far wider base of knowledge and experience in critical departments of the game. In times past, teams from the Pacific Islands tended to be written off as a collection of spectacular individual footballers who could not handle the collective chores of tight forward play – but no longer.

At the England-Fiji match played out in intermittent rainstorms at Twickenham, the visitors retained 12 of their 15 lineout throws and won the only scrum penalty of the game. As ex-England skipper Dylan Hartley said in television commentary, the (France-based) Fijian tight-head Luke Tagi was ‘like a rock’ whenever it really mattered at the set-piece.

Samoa enjoyed the same solid foundations versus a strong Ireland side in Bayonne, and that is why all three Pasifika nations will provide deadly-serious opposition for the ‘Tier One’ sides throughout the tournament in France.

It all started at scrum-time, where Samoa was anchored by the ex-Melbourne Rebels prop Paul Alo-Emile. World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer once commented Alo-Emile had ‘the best back of any tight head prop in Australia’, but after five seasons in Super Rugby with the Force and the Rebels he’d had enough. Alo-Emile migrated to Top 14 giants Stade Français in 2015 in order to fulfil his undoubted scrummaging potential, and he has been there ever since.

It would be right to call France his family home, to the extent his younger brother Moses now often plays alongside him in the same front row for Les Stadistes. In 2022-23, the Pink Army boasted the second-best scrum in the league, with Stade winning 90% of their own ball and enjoying a penalty differential of +23 at the set-piece.

At only 5ft 11ins and tipping the scales at 136kg, Alo-Emile is a compact breeze-block of power. At the Stade Jean Dauger, he was entirely too much for an Ireland front row boasting 125-cap Cian Healy, with promising Munsterman Jeremy Loughman on the bench behind him. Alo-Emile dealt with both, Loughman enduring even more scrum punishment after his illustrious predecessor was forced to leave the field injuries after only 20 minutes.

 

Alo-Emile had already flagged up his ability to take out both the opposing loose-head and the hooker with this, the first scrum penalty of the game against Healy. When Loughman came on to replace the Leinster-man, he found it hard going indeed to contain Alo-Emile’s power in the same gap.

In the first screenshot, Loughman is turned in on his scrummaging axis and ends up facing towards the far touchline, and slightly towards his goal line; in the second, he is so comprehensively split away from his hooker he ends up a spectator, catapulted away from the other five front rowers as the men in green collapse to relieve the pressure.

Alo-Emile was ably supported by a Samoan lineout containing four genuine targets in locks Theo McFarland and Chris Vui, and back-rowers Luatua and Seu. All four have played plenty rugby at blind-side flanker, and they gave their team a core of big men who could all run, push and jump with impact.

Vui is a true workhorse for his club, Bristol Bears. He can run a lineout, and he finished seventh overall in the 2022-2023 Premiership regular season in both lineout takes and steals, while making 142 carries and 205 tackles. Ex-Chiefs man Seu was one of the most consistent forwards in an underperforming Waratahs pack in Super Rugby Pacific 2023, while Luatua has been at the very apex of the game ever since he arrived at Bristol back in 2017.

The joker in the pack is McFarland, who was the outstanding forward at Saracens before an ACL injury put paid to his season after only eight rounds of the Premiership. At the time, he was tracking as the forward with the most lineout wins, the most steals and the highest ratio of clean breaks in the entire competition. With his athletic spring and a pair of exceptional hands to boot, McFarland was a game-breaking athlete.

His coach at the StoneX, Ulsterman Mark McCall, was typically sober about the diamond in the rough the club had unearthed, and the enormous untapped potential of a man in his late twenties.

“He’s 26, 27 now but he has barely been involved in professional rugby so he is a very young rugby age, to be honest, so we are very confident that he will get better.

“He is quiet but you have got to watch the quiet ones. He is a great character and well-liked by the squad. A very gentle soul I would say, but he is brilliant to have around and the important thing is, he actually cares about what he does.”

As you would expect from an ex-international basketballer, McFarland is an exceptional athlete when the ball is in the air, as the Ireland lineout soon discovered to its cost.

 

 

McFarland enjoys such terrific natural spring and has such good body control in the air he can afford to be second off the ground and still accelerate past the intended receiver to get first touch to the ball. He stole three lineouts directly in the first half alone, and his mere presence at the front-middle created a domino-effect anxiety on the Ireland throw.

That lost lineout led eventually to Samoa’s opening try of the game. Another counter-attack in the second period hinted at what that quartet of footballing big men – Seu, Luatua, Vui and McFarland – might be able to achieve, given the chance in an open field.

 

In this case it is Seu breaking and McFarland sustaining the attacking momentum, but all four can run and handle and offload effectively.

Eddie Jones might have enjoyed poking his own pet bear when he ribbed New Zealand. In fact, there is far wider cause for concern among the top-tier nations at the large-scale homecomings of Pasifika players from leagues all around the world.

They are bringing new skills and IP with them – scrummaging nous and lineout ability – which will undermine the traditional tactical formula for overcoming the Pacific Island nations. It is World Cup midnight, and the marauders concealed within World Rugby’s bold Trojan Horse may be ready to break out, and take the citadel.

Comments

42 Comments
M
MitchO 286 days ago

Pretty sure Mike aaa is their other tighthead. I don’t know how good he is but you don’t play that many games for the crusaders with out being test match quality or without learning something

D
Derek Murray 286 days ago

Not often, ever, I get to correct you, Nick. Seu was indeed one of the Tahs best last season so I'm sad to say he's moved to Japan for next.

H
Haunui 286 days ago

It’s rich that Eddie Jones talks about NZ losing academy when Australia rugby union is completely reliant on the Pasifika population for players and the NRL is dominated by Pasifika players as well.
The Islands aren’t the academy NZ is. There is a constant myth circulated in NZ sporting media that sonehow NZ owes pacific rugby players. I don’t buy that as a Māori I believe this country has provided shelter, jobs and economic security and rugby schooling to thousands for our Pacific cousins over the years.Pasifika needs to thank NZ for taking them in as immigrants .

J
Jmann 286 days ago

Of course - the truth is that Tonga and Samoa are actually stacked with New Zealanders. Born and bred.

d
dave 286 days ago

Great article Nick. You're right. The old formula used to be let the Island nations run out of puff then destroy them in the set piece. So good to see your analysis of the strength of the Samoans' scrum and lineout. Here's hoping all three progress to the quarters or at least create some waves during the group stage. Cheers

f
frandinand 286 days ago

I am absolutely delighted to see the flowering of Pacific Island rugby. It can only be good for the game.
However with so many of the Pacific Islanders now 2nd generation especially in NZ the grandparent qualification will in the next 30 or so years become irrelevant.

P
Pecos 286 days ago

All power to the PI nations. Love it. The ideal situation will be reached when PI descent players choose their PI nation over say the ABs, France, Japan, Australia, etc. I suspect the ABs will still be a priority consideration for a long time yet. Time will tell.

p
philip 286 days ago

At last they will be unleashed- the Island Boys. Some of us have been waiting a good 20 years and more from the days when one or two would catch the eye and one wondered what a whole team of them would look like !!! Splendid article and insightful as is your wont

Load More Comments

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search