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Nation in Focus: Samoa

Toa Samoa are primed to cause an upset in the 'Pool of Death' at Rugby League World Cup 2017.

Expectations will be high for Toa Samoa at Rugby League World Cup 2017, with the nation arguably one of the favourites to not only progress to the tournament finals, but to potentially knock off one of the ‘Big Three’ in a World Cup.

History

Western Samoa first took to the field in a Rugby League match back in 1986 when they joined the likes of Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands in the New South Wales Rugby League coordinated Rugby League Pacific Cup.

The event, which was the third of its kind, took a conscious effort to invite interested locals and players of Pacific Island heritage into the multi-national tournament.

Held in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, the Western Samoan side was grouped with Tokelau and Tonga. The Samoans would beat Tokelau in their opening game 34-12, before going down to Tonga 34-16.

Despite the loss against Tonga, Western Samoa qualified for the Semi Finals defeating the Cook Islands 48-0, before facing Tonga in the tournament Preliminary Final.

Shocked by their initial loss, the Samoans recorded a convincing 46-4 win over the Tongans before going down to the New Zealand Maori 23-6 in the tournament final.

Despite the strong performance at the Pacific Cup, Rugby League didn’t quite catch on back in Samoa the same way it did for the other participants in the 1986 Pacific Cup.  The performance of Western Samoa had a positive impact on the Samoan community in New Zealand, stimulating efforts to ensure the next 1988 Pacific Cup was held in Apia.

With high expectations, the Western Samoan side started the 1988 Pacific Cup strongly, recording wins over the Cook Islands and Tokelau in the group stages of the tournament, before facing Tonga in the tournament Semi Final.

Despite Tonga putting up a stronger performance than in 1986, Western Samoa qualified for their second Pacific Cup Final, again taking on the New Zealand Maori. In front of a large and vocal home crowd, the Samoans put up a strong performance, however fell short to a New Zealand Maori side which included the likes of Morvin Edwards, Barry Harvey, Kelly Shelford, Mark Woods and Tawera Nikau.

After two Pacific Cup Final losses, Western Samoa finally collected their first piece of international silverware in the 1990 Pacific Cup tournament in Tonga, recording their first ever victory over the New Zealand Maori in the final (26-18) and running through the tournament undefeated to secure the trophy.

Western Samoa would successfully defend their Pacific Cup title, defeating Tonga 18-14 in extra time in the 1992 edition of the Pacific Cup.

By the time the 1994 Pacific Cup rolled around, Samoa were expected to dominate the competition. Grouped with Fiji, Rotuma, Cook Islands and American Samoa in the pool stages, Samoa went on to record victories in each of the preliminary games, before Tonga recorded an upset 34-16 victory over the Toa Samoa outfit in the Semi Finals.

Samoa would go on to defeated the Australian Indigenous team in the third place play off 29-22, however it would be the first time the Toa Samoa outfit would not feature in a Pacific Cup Final.

Despite missing the Pacific Cup Final, Samoa were invited to take part in their first ever Rugby League World Cup in 1995. The Samoans were grouped with traditional Rugby League nations, Wales and France in Group C of the tournament, and would kick start their World Cup campaign with a convincing 56-10 win over the Les Chanticleers in Cardiff.

After a convincing opening win, Samoa went into their must win game against Wales in Swansea, however the Dragons, in front of a capacity home crowd were too good in the end running out 22-10 winners, ending Samoa’s World Cup campaign.

Rugby Union turning professional at the end of 1995 would go on to hurt Samoa’s international Rugby League ambitions, with players of the ilk of Apollo Perelini and Fereti Tuilagi leaving League and returning to Union.

The loss of such quality players hurt Samoa’s prospects in the 1996 Pacific Challenge, with the nation going through the event without a win.

Samoa did not take part in the 1997 Oceania Cup due to a dispute with Super League aligned authorities and would play limited matches until the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.

The 2000 Rugby League World Cup saw Samoa join Scotland, Ireland and the New Zealand Maori in Group D of the tournament. Opening their campaign in Belfast, the Samoans would go down 30-16 to Ireland in the opening day of the tournament, before recording tight victories over Scotland and the Maori to qualify for their first ever World Cup Finals.

Unfortunately for the Samoans, despite making the final, they would go on to draw eventual champions, Australiain the quarter final at Watford, going down 66-10 in a match the Kangaroos dominated. The result would be Samoa’s biggest loss to date in international Rugby League.

International opportunities for Toa Samoa were relatively light for the next few years until the 2006 Pacific Cup in Auckland. Samoa would finish sixth, but used the event to blood a number of new potential players for the national side, who would go onto play in the 2008 World Cup Qualifiers.

Samoa’s World Cup Qualifier campaign would start strongly, with the nation recording victories over Fiji and the Cook Islands, however a loss to Tonga in Leeds would for the Toa Samoa outfit to have to go through the repechage rounds to make the tournament.

As such, Samoa would have to wait a whole year to know their World Cup fate, taking on the USA Tomahawks and Lebanon Cedars in the repechage rounds to secure their spot at World Cup 2008.

With a number of big name players, Samoa were expected to dominate their Pool at the 2008 World Cup in Sydney, however despite defeating Tonga 20-12 in their opening game, would suffer a 34-16 defeat to the Irish to finish bottom of their pool.

Samoa’s poor result would mean that they would be forced to qualify for the 2009 Pacific Cup in Papua New Guinea, however the Cook Islands would prove too strong for the Samoans, winning 22-20 to force the Island nation to have to sit out another tournament.

Samoa would play a series of one off tests in 2010, including their first against the Kiwis and another battle against Tonga as their only games between 2009 and the World Cup year, 2013.

Samoa’s fourth World Cup, 2013, would arguably be the nation’s strongest, and would kick start a golden period for the Toa Samoan team.  After a creditable performance against the Kiwis in Warrington, going down 42-24, the Samoan would go on to post big victories against France and Papua New Guinea to qualify for their second World Cup Finals.

Playing the Bati in Warrington, Samoa would go down 22-4 with the Fijians going on to play Australia in the Semi Finals, however the result would see Samoa given the opportunity to qualify for the 2014 Four Nations tournament.

Samoa would defeat Fiji 32-16 in the qualifier, before only just falling short against England and New Zealand in the Four Nations tournament held later that year.

Samoa would go on to win their next two Polynesian Cup clashes against Tonga, and will go into World Cup 2013 as a real threat.

Domestic Scene

Regular domestic Rugby League has been held in Samoa since the 1988 Pacific Cup, with local competitions held primarily around the national capital of Apia.

Despite almost 30 years of Rugby League in the country, the majority of the participation were focused around the open age years groups. In that time, considerable efforts have been put into introducing Rugby League at junior and school levels throughout the country.

In the 2016 National competition six teams took place, including the Vaitele Wests Tigers, Matniuel Laulii Lions, Letava Bulldogs, PSL Scopa, Marist Saints and Apia Barracudas.

The Marist Saints would defeat the Apia Barracudas 32-28 in the Rugby League Samoa Grand Final to win the Presidents Cup.

National Team Stats

Moniker: Toa Samoa
Colours: Blue and White
Coach: Matt Parish
First Test: Western Samoa 34 d. Tokelau 12, Rarotonga 
Best World Cup Result: Quarter Finals (2000, 2013)

Famous Players

Ali Lauitiiti: Few players were as entertaining on the field as the rampaging forward, Ali Lauitiiti. Playing First Grade Rugby League for more than 15 years, Lauitiiti recorded over 400 games at the top level, including 19 for the New Zealand Kiwis and 4 for Toa Samoa.

Nigel Vagana: Despite only playing four Tests for the Samoans, Nigel Vagana has been instrumental to the resurgence of Samoan Rugby League in the past few years. A 200 game veteran of the NRL, Vagana would not only collect 37 caps for the Kiwis over his 12 year career, but would be heavily involved in helping recruit and retain players for the Samoan national team.

Frank Puletua: A nine test veteran for the Toa Samoan side, Frank Puletua has been another heavily involved both on and off the field in helping Rugby League Samoa return to the heights on the international Rugby League arena. A 178 game veteran of the NRL, Puletua made his mark at the Penrith Panthers over a 13 year playing career.

Ones to Watch

Heading into the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, let’s look at some of the players who will be integral to the success of the Toa Samoa in the upcoming tournament.

Frank Pritchard: A damaging forward, Parramatta aligned, Frank Pritchard, will play an integral part to helping Toa Samoa continue to dominate opposing packs. Passionate about representing Samoa, Pritchard highlighted his commitment to the cause in 2016 when he flew back from Hull to represent Toa Samoa against Tonga in the Pacific Test.

Anthony Milford: Changes to the international eligibility rules increase the likelihood that Samoa would be able to take advantage of the services of current Brisbane Broncos five-eighth, Anthony Milford, at this year’s tournament. Integral to Samoa’s success in the 2013 World Cup, Milford will be welcomed back by the Samoan side with open arms.

Tim Lafai: Born in Suvai, Samoa, Lafai will add some much welcomed speed to the Samoan third-quarter line at this year’s World Cup. With already six caps to his name, Lafai will be a certain starter for Toa Samoa at this year’s tournament.

Leeson Ah Mau: Captain for Samoa in their most recent Test against Fiji, and currently their most capped player with 11 caps, Ah Mau will bring a wealth of experience and defensive grit that will be welcomed by the Samoans at this year’s tournament. 

World Cup Group Stages

Samoa will come into Rugby League World Cup 2017 brimming with confidence.  Despite arguably been grouped in the ‘Pool of Death’ at this year’s event, Samoa will be buoyed by their recent results against all three opponents.

In their opening clash, Toa Samoa will face tournament hosts, the New Zealand Kiwis in Auckland, and whilst the Samoans are yet to defeat the Kiwis, after pushing the nation all the way in World Cup 2013, and then only just falling short by two points in the 2014 Four Nations, the Kiwis are no longer intimidating opponents for the Island nation.

Samoa will then face traditional opponents, Tonga, in Waikato and Samoa in Cairns in their other two group games.

Samoa will go into the clash against Tonga as favourites, after winning three of their last four encounters, whilst in the one and only clash between Samoa and Scotland previously, the Pacific nation recorded a 20 - 12 victory.

With a significant pool of National Rugby League and Super League players to call upon, expectations will be high for Samoa to not only make the tournament Quarter Finals but potentially even progress further.

Vs New Zealand
Played: 3
W 0 – D 0 – L 3
Purchase Tickets to New Zealand v Samoa in Auckland on 28/10/2017

Vs Tonga
Played: 19
W 10 – D 0 – L 9
Purchase Tickets to Tonga v Samoa in Hamilton on 04/11/2017

Vs Scotland
Played: 1
W 1 – D 0 – L 0
Purchase Tickets to Scotland v Samoa in Cairns on 11/11/2017

By Steve Birchall | @StevenBirchall
Contributor, RLWC2017

Samoa - Supporters will be out in force in Hamilton Nov 4 when Toa Samoa meet traditional rivals Tonga at RLWC2017.
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