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Shifting tides By Tom Vinicombe

It’s been a long time between drinks for Manu Samoa.

When Seilala Mapusua was appointed the team’s new head coach last August, he didn’t expect that it would be almost 10 months before he was able to assemble a squad for his first test match match in charge, but that’s exactly how things have transpired.

The Samoan national side will play two fixtures against the Maori All Blacks in late June and early July this year before taking on Tonga in successive weekends to determine who will qualify as the Oceania representative for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Potential matches against Italy and the All Blacks were on the agenda at one point or another but according to Mapusua, a former Otago, Highlanders and London Irish representative, the series against the Maori All Blacks is the perfect build up to what will be Manu Samoa’s first test matches since the last World Cup in 2019.

Manu Samoa haven’t played a match since their defeat to Ireland during the pool stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. (Photo by INPHO/Jayne Russell)

“From when I started in the role, the goal has always been to qualify for the next World Cup as quickly as we can,” Mapusua tells The XV from his quarantine hotel in South Auckland. “It just so happens that our first test matches are the qualifiers, which is brilliant.

“Whilst our focus is on Tonga, the Maori All Blacks play a big part in our preparation. I think it’s a great way to start my tenure as coach, playing a team as prestigious as the Maori.

“They’re a team with a lot of history and they play an exciting brand of rugby which I think will serve how we want to play as well.”

Italy, as part of their tour to the Southern Hemisphere, were supposed to spend a weekend in Samoa but the Azurri have canned the trip south altogether.

That cancellation also caused issues for New Zealand – who they were supposed to square off against in a two-match series.

Whilst the test matches against the All Blacks are few and far between … the fact that I don’t have access to a full-strength team, I have to ask if would be doing the jersey justice and being fair to the players by asking them to play one of the greatest teams in the world.

New Manu Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua

Instead, the All Blacks will take on Fiji twice and were looking for a team to fill the gap left in their schedule. While Samoa were a mooted option, the fixture never eventuated.

“It was kind of last minute,” says Mapusua. “There were a few discussions had and it just didn’t align with our plans.

“The focus was on the Rugby World Cup qualifiers and whilst it would have been great to play the All Blacks it just didn’t align with what we were trying to achieve.

“I just have to look at whether it’s the best thing for us. Whilst the test matches against the All Blacks are few and far between … the fact that I don’t have access to a full-strength team, I have to ask if would be doing the jersey justice and being fair to the players by asking them to play one of the greatest teams in the world.

“Whilst it would be a great memory or story, because we’d be using largely local players, it wouldn’t help us achieve our goal which is to qualify for the World Cup.”

Despite their close relations, New Zealand and Samoa have squared off just seven times throughout their respective histories – which is a huge bone of contention for many fans of the game, regardless of where their allegiance lies.

As a first encounter for a new coach with a fresh playing group who’ve not performed together for the better part of two years, a smashing at the hand of the match-ready All Blacks might not be the best starting point for a side who are preparing for crucial World Cup qualification matches.

Despite their nations’ geographical proximity, Samoa and the All Blacks have played just a handful of games in the past and only once in Apia, where a sold-out crowd turned out to watch the sides clash ahead of the 2015 World Cup. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Still, opportunities to play the All Blacks don’t come around often.

As such, it was tough decision to turn down New Zealand Rugby – who had a specific date in mind for when they would be willing to play the match – but Mapusua is hopeful that the desire to play a game between the two nations will still exist near year when schedules can hopefully be sorted further in advance.

“Trust me, if this was planned a year ago it would be a different story but I’ve got to do what I think is in the best interests of our team,” he says.

“Because we’re not playing this year, I think it would be a great opportunity to ask the All Blacks to come over to Samoa next year and play us because we’re celebrating 60 years of independence and I think it would be a great gesture from the All Blacks.”

Focussing on this year, however, is playing the Maori All Blacks effectively the next best thing for Manu Samoa?

“I don’t think the Maori are the next best thing, I think they’re the best thing for us,” Mapusua says.

The hardest tests and the most sore I’ve been after games were always in the Pacific Nations Cup. It’s tribal warfare and it’s some of the best and some of the worst rugby memories I have

Mapusua on his playing days with Samoa

“It’s going to be physical and quite taxing and that should prepare us very well for what Tonga are going to bring because we know that Tonga are one of the most physical teams in the world.

“The hardest tests and the most sore I’ve been after games were always in the Pacific Nations Cup. It’s tribal warfare and it’s some of the best and some of the worst rugby memories I have.”

Mapusua played 26 matches for Moana Samoa and a further seven for the composite Pacific Islanders side that toured Australia, New Zealand and Europe at various times from 2004 to 2008 – but he never had the opportunity to suit up against the Maori All Blacks.

In his eyes, however, they’re the perfect opposition ahead of the series with Tonga.

“We discussed who we could play that could really help us prepare for that game and the Maori were the first team that we thought of,” he said.

“I know they’re going to provide us with really tough opposition as they’ve shown in the past. That’s perfect preparation for us.

“I think the Maori will hopefully provide us with more answers than questions and it’s great that we can play them twice as well. The more game we play together, the better it is.”

While the Maori All Blacks and Manu Samoa used to regularly share the field, they’ve not played together since the 2008 Pacific Nations Cup. (Photo by Stephen Barker/Photosport)

In a twist on the usual formula, all four of Samoa’s matches will take place in New Zealand at the same time as Fiji are squaring off with the All Blacks, creating somewhat of a festival of Pacific Islands rugby.

Manu Samoa’s opening game with the Maori All Blacks is set for Wellington while their second match is scheduled for Auckland’s Mount Smart – as part of a tasty double-header alongside the fixture between the All Blacks and Tonga.

The two matches between Manu Samoa and the ‘Ikale Tahi, meanwhile, will be shared between Mount Smart and Waikato Stadium.

“I think this is the most games that the Manu Samoa have played in the mid-year window for a very long time,” Mapusua says. “The window’s only three weeks long and we’ve managed to get four games.”

Not having access to all players is a challenge that Pacific Islands teams face all the time and even more so now with COVID and travel restrictions and quarantines. It’s just become that little bit more difficult.

Mapusua on the challenges of 2021

Fitting in as many games as they have does come at a price, however, with a number of European-based players likely to miss the tests due to their finals commitments.

“Not having access to all players is a challenge that Pacific Islands teams face all the time and even more so now with COVID and travel restrictions and quarantines. It’s just become that little bit more difficult,” says Mapusua.

“The tough one is a lot of players are playing in play-offs for the Premiership and the French Top 14. Even if we were to get those players down, they’ll be jumping on a plane after a couple of good days with the boys and then getting down here and having quarantine for two weeks and probably coming out the week of the first test so that’s a really difficult one for me.

“We’ll be using the two Maori games as our build up into the qualifiers with Tonga and it would be hard for me to bring in players late when there have been other guys working hard and playing together for those initial two weeks. It could be more disruptive than good regardless of who the player is.”

With some experienced men likely to miss the cut, it presents opportunities for a number of Southern Hemisphere-based players – including a handful of current Super Rugby representatives who Mapusua is looking forward to unveiling later this month.

New Manu Samoa coach Seilala Mapusua says that the games between the Pacific Island nations are some of the toughest in the world. (Photo by Michel Gangne/AFP via Getty Images

Likewise, the new Manu Samoa coach has assembled a mouth-wateringly good group of assistant coaches for the upcoming series.

While Mapusua isn’t planning on reinventing the wheel in his first professional head coaching gig, he has got a long-term vision for Samoa and how he hopes to grow the game for the Pacific Island nation.

“One thing I’m really passionate about is doing things unapologetically Samoan,” he says.

“I want to create that environment so when boys do go back to their clubs, I want them talking about it, I want them looking forward to coming back, I want them to keep working hard to get back into the team.

Similarly, the Samoa Rugby Union is in the process of rebranding themselves to Lakapi Samoa.

“I think it’s great and I’m really glad that the board have decided to do this,” says Mapusu. “It really, really does become unapologetically Samoan.

“Lakapi means rugby and I think it’s a good thing about our identity, celebrating being Samoan and using our Samoan language to show who we are. It’s a great step in the right direction and I’m hoping that all Samoans will feel empowered by it. I’m really, really excited about it.”

Manu Samoa are set to announce their squad for the upcoming series next week.

Manu Samoa schedule:

26 June v Maori All Blacks – Sky Stadium, Wellington
3 July v Maori All Blacks – Mount Smart, Auckland
10 July v Tonga – Mount Smart, Auckland
17 July v Tonga – Waikato Stadium, Hamilton

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