Some stuff You never knew about the rise and rise of Samoa rugby- and New Zealand's role in its early years.

Some stuff You never knew about the rise and rise of Samoa rugby- and New Zealand's role in its early years.

It's always fun when Manu Samoa's supporters are around!

8 July 2015

A brief history of the first years of contact between NZ rugby and Samoa. And Samoa's best moments.

By Keith Quinn

Thinking back to my childhood years of living in the big city of Wellington, New Zealand I can clearly recall with slight mystification and not a little curiosity the new family which arrived and moved in two doors from ours. We soon learned they were from a place we had hardly heard of called Western Samoa. Our new neighbours were the Peleti family and my brothers and I soon got know them as lovely friendly people.

An early memory of them was the time the father of the large family, whose name was Sam Peleti won a competition in Wellington for marathon rock and roll dancing! The idea was that everyone started dancing on the Friday night in our Town Hall and when anyone got tired they dropped out. We kids marvelled when ‘Mr Peleti’ danced and danced for something like three days and won the event. I cannot recall the prize except that he won except I recall how proud we were when his name and photograph appeared in the daily paper. Wow! We lived in the same street!

That must have been in the early 1960s and I guess the Peleti family were like many from Samoa around that time who had made the migration to a new life in New Zealand.

I also recall other island kids in my early school classes who turned up and who were Samoan. I recall their open faces and friendly smiles. And among the boys I soon earned a healthy respect for their prowess at all sports and games. It seemed to me then, looking through a young kid’s eyes, that all Samoan boys were regarded by us as super rugby players, very tough and committed and always tough to stop.

For the purposes of writing for this piece I went back to my piles of clippings and books from that time and tried to capture memories of Samoans in rugby. I found an old clipping where the first ever NZ Maori team on tour in the Pacific (in 1960) complained about the heat in Apia. ‘It was over 100 degrees!’ wailed the team manager. 

Such assertions, of course, have come from every rugby team who visits there.

Of much more significance was the fact that the tour marked the first ever ‘Official’ rugby contact between New Zealand and Samoa. Notwithstanding their perceived difficulties with the weather, the Maori team won their six games in Samoa by what on the surface look like comfortable margins. The report says condition of the ground at Apia Park was ‘soft and easy’ and tended to produce injuries to the New Zealand players. Some of the Maori players sustained ankle injuries.

The first game was quaintly called a ‘second-class’ fixture against the Moata’a Club and was won by the Maori team by 36-3. The followed wins over a Country team (36-8), Western Samoa – 1st test (28-6), a Town team (36-8) and Western Samoa – 2nd test (31-5). There was also a game against Saleimoa – which was called an ‘unofficial’ match (as distinct from the earlier ‘second-class’ game – what is the difference I wonder?). The Maori maintained their unbeaten record in that one as well, but only by 12-9. Well played Saleimoa.

I noted several things about the tour games; the main thing being that a number of local players played in almost every game of the tour. (M.Pulusila [the captain), T.Stowers, P.Sione and T.Gage were just some) They must have had a very busy month as the whole tour lasted only a couple of days over a fortnight.

The thing is - looking back at the results of those Maori tour games I wonder if anyone can remember that in the Maori team for that trip were two young men who were to become great All Black stars of the future.  Mackie Herewini and Waka Nathan were only teenagers but when they moved on to become players recognised the world over it could be said that Samoan rugby fans saw them first!

The other thing, which is more significant as an afterthought, is that the 1960 Maori tour of the Pacific, for fixtures in Tonga and Samoa was played at the exact same time in the year as the full New Zealand All Blacks of that year were beginning their tour of South Africa. Except that the team was not ‘full’ in the proper sense of the word.

While on the one hand we could say how good it was that at last a major team from New Zealand had visited the islands, the advantage of history reminds us that there might have been feelings of resentment among some of the best Maori players. By virtue of their dark skin Maori players were unacceptable to the wretched racial policies of South Africa at the time. Only ‘white’ skin players could make the All Blacks that year. One would have to hope that many of the Maori team, who might have disappointed or disgusted and who visited Tonga and Samoa did not show their disappointment or anger too much. It is noted in the reports of the team’s visit to Samoa only indicate that the Maori players enjoyed themselves hugely.

[Note; In May 2010, the New Zealand Rugby Union officially apologised to Maori players and their families who missed selection for the All Blacks in those years because of the colour of their skin.]

That was a promising, if somewhat delayed start to relations on the rugby field between the two countries. After all, the NZRU had been operating since 1892. An invitation by the NZRU to return the compliment which had been offered by (Western) Samoa to the Maori team in 1960, i.e.; for New Zealand to host a reciprocal visit by a Samoan team did not come for a further 16 years. And that seemingly was led by Samoa pushing themselves forward with rugby ambition rather than the other way round.

As rugby history tells us the Western Samoan Prime Minister in 1976 was Tupuola Taisi Efi, later of course, His Highness Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi. He was well known in New Zealand, especially in my home town of Wellington as a former pupil of St Patrick’s College Silverstream and a former pupil of Wellington’s Victoria University. He was also President then of the Western Samoa Rugby Union.

His Highness, doubling in 1976 as Samoa’s youngest ever PM, and President of WSRU began a motivated programme to improve the status of Samoan rugby, certainly in the Pacific region first.  Contact with Fiji and Tonga, which had lapsed, was reinvigorated in 1975 and only a year later, in 1976 a tour to New Zealand finally came to be.

With that acceptance came the first indications of what Samoa would show to the ‘outside’ world within the next 15 years. The first thing was a total commitment to hard work. The tour to New Zealand was definitely no cake walk. First of all funding had to be found.  But here the generosity of the home Samoan people shone through. The tour’s planning committee was set a target of raising $18,000 for the trip for the 26 players and four management. In just a month that target was passed. The team was eventually able to leave for New Zealand having raised no less than $24,000. That was a massive amount of money in those far off days.

Not only that, once the team arrived in New Zealand two non-playing members of the party continued to fund-raise from the generous Samoan-Kiwi community and the basis of funding for future tours was therefore able to be taken home.

Then there was the actual rugby to be played. An itinerary of eight games was set out. It sounded good in principle but in practice it was a real test of strength and fortitude for the brave team. Not only were two ‘test’ matches against New Zealand Maori teams put on the calendar but two further games against Division One provincial teams, Counties and Hawkes Bay, were set in place too. Sure there were games added in against lesser teams but the itinerary was cruel in the extreme.  

If you know the approximate distances between some of the towns and cities of New Zealand you will know that to fly in one day from Apia to Auckland and then play in Levin three days later and then have to play your second game in Westport (in the South Island) three days after that and then journey back to the North Island to Napier for yet another game within another three-day span would be taxing enough today. In 1976 it was very trying indeed. The weekly schedule read something like play-travel-practice-play-travel-practice-play etc.  A lot of the long travel was by bus and the two ‘tests’ were on the final two Saturdays.

But there was never a mention of any of the team complaining. Far from it. Except maybe about the weather which led to some games being played in typical New Zealand winter conditions, which is of course was far frojm what the team would have been used to.

Fa’apopo Siu was a sturdy leader of the team; Tuala McDonald was a strong coach, Keli Tuatagaloa his able assistant and Allan Gray the hardworking manager. Mr Sala Siuvai also travelled as the 'Prime Minister’s representative.'

The Samoans learned much from the tour. They mostly learned about forward play. They did not have tall forwards for the lineouts, and their understanding of rucks for gaining second-phase play was naive to seasoned New Zealanders. In some matches Samoa played with only scraps of possession for their speedy backs. The 24-year old fullback Peter Schuster was noted early as an outstanding footballer, one who drew lots of praise from seasoned New Zealand reporters. 

In one phase of play New Zealanders in turn learned lessons from the touring team. The tour was the world’s first look at the dynamic, fearless tackling which is still the watchword of Manu Samoa play. A look through the pages of the 1976 New Zealand Rugby Annual sees reports of ‘crunching tackles,’ in one game, ‘ferocious tackling’ in another game and ‘Samoan sharpshooters’ waiting to mow down hapless opposition in another game.

But it was not an easy tour for ‘Western Samoa.’ There was just one win from eight games. Thankfully there was only one ‘hiding’ the team had to take (0-38 by Hawkes Bay). Yet in the end much was gained. While all the reports I have talk of the team’s match fitness being short of a decent standard there were signs hidden within the results that can now be seen as the first omens of the future successful Samoan style.

Yes the tackling was impressive but so too was the effort in the two main tour games with the New Zealand Maori team. In the first, played in near-freezing, rainy conditions in Rotorua, the home team was expected beforehand to dominate if not decimate the Samoans. But Samoa led the fancied Maori XV by 6-4 at halftime. Only in the second half, with superior physical reserves did the Maori come home. And then only by 19-6 (3 tries to 1).

In the second game a week later, (after a mountainous next day bus trip over from Rotorua to New Plymouth and then another back up to Auckland) the same thing happened. The touring team held the mighty Maori to only 4-7 at halftime but then faded to lose 8-24 at the end (though still only 2 tries to 4).

For the Samoans the tour was a powerful exercise in rugby experience, a journey into expanding the knowledge of what would be needed in the future to fulfil the dreams of people like the 1976 PM,  Tupuola Taisi Efi, also the future Prime Ministers, Tofilau Eti Alesana and Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi, the various committees of the SRFU and the dedicated rugby men of vision then and in the future; like Allan Grey, Tate Simi, Feesago ‘George’ Fepulea’i, Peter Fatialofa, Bryan Williams, John Boe, Taufusi Salesa, Michael Jones, Dickie Tafua, Pat Lam, Brian Lima, Uale Mai, Lolo Lui, Rudi Moors, Stephen Betham and Peter Schuster himself.  Not forgetting Marina Schaffhausen of course.

All have played their part in the rise of Samoan rugby. I beg your forgiveness if from this distance I have forgotten other people of note; there are hundreds of others I realise of course.

That the 1976 team built from their tough New Zealand tour to play in a Rugby World Cup only 15 years later, in 1991, is a compliment to what they set out to do with such early confidence and vision. And so clearly they have accomplished so much to now have the respect of the full rugby world.

....

The other day The New Zealand Herald published a list of the 'Greatest Days in Samoan rugby history'

Their list had the 'Western Samoa' victory over Wales in their Rugby World Cup debut as their greatest day.

While yes, that certainly could apply to the 15s version of the game, might I also add the sevens rugby win in Edinburgh in May, 2010 as even better. That was surely the greatest day ever for any Samoan sport on a global scale! On a grey Edinburgh afternoon Samoa clinched the full IRB World Sevens series tour title.

Such was the delight at home the win was celebrated with a full working day's holiday for everyone in the country!  

The coach of the Samoans sevens that year was Stephan Betham. He is now the coach of the 15s team in 2015.

When I look at the Commonwealth Games records and long screeds of Olympic records and results and when I note Samoa's successes at the four-yearly South Pacific Games I cannot see a moment for Samoan sport which is greater in the world sense.

For any admiring observer, watching in the half-light of a cool Wellington morning, I saw not only Samoa’s epic 41-14 Win over Australia but I saw also the completion of a wide rugby circle of Samoan rugby achievement.

Let me explain.

The connection of the circle is because I was there in Britain in 1991 when the young men in blue made Samoa's very first major foray into the world of the IRB 15-aside scene. The Manu Samoa 15-aside team, under captain Peter Fatialofa, and coached by Peter Schuster came literally from nowhere and arrived in the same Scottish city of Edinburgh to play a quarter-final against the home team at the second Rugby World Cup. 

60,000 wild Scottish fans were in the same steeped-in-history Scottish ground that day. For Scotland there was much to play for. The match programmes at that tournament still discourteously called the team ‘W.Samoa’ which I for one, saw as an extremely impolite gesture (They would have never called New Zealand as ‘N.Zealand’ would they?) But for Samoa to be there was a triumph of commitment and will.

Four years earlier Western Samoa had not been invited to play in the first World Cup in New Zealand. The closest they got was to be put on a last minute ‘stand-by’ in case Fiji’s political coup d’etat forced them to pull out.

That did not happen but Samoa, even in its gentle way, were definitely brassed off.

So began their new programme of expansion, determined to join the rugby world and demand their place in it.

The team did that superbly, and quickly.

In just four years the newly named ‘Manu Samoa’ had played two major tours to Europe, in 1988 and 1989, and had risen to a standard where they arrived in 1991 as Pacific Champions and worthy members of the 16 top rugby nations. In four years they had earned their way into a Rugby World Cup entry.

It is true to say the 1991 Samoans arrived at that tournament wide-eyed almost with disbelief that they were there. But they played so well! Right from the start they relished the atmosphere of the global rugby experience.

 They first stunned the world by beating the World Cup hosts Wales 16-13, a most famous effort. That day remains one of the most excited this writer has ever been at a rugby game. Then they narrowly lost 3-9 to the eventual Cup winner’s Australia, and then under the kind of pressure never before experienced Samoa had to beat Argentina to make the quarter-finals of their first major tournament.  The 35-12 win was as emphatic as it was honourable.

As shock quarter-finalists the world finally realised that Samoa was serious about the game. But even the dream had to end. The Scottish team, on that fateful day, scored three tries and kicked their goals and they beat ‘ W.Samoa’ 28-6.

I recall one other thing from that day. As the beaten Samoan boys were about to leave the field at game’s end the crowd’s cheering caught them and held them back. The crowd seemed to collectively demand something more.

So my word, the Manu Samoa boys gave it to them. To a rapturous reception the team broke into a ferocious ‘Manu’ war dance challenge. It was a wonderful moment. Yes the Samoan team had been beaten but the intensity of their challenge was indeed a signal that Samoan rugby had arrived.

So then come forward to 2010 and on the same hallowed rugby theatre, in Edinburgh another Samoan team signalled their arrival at an even higher level.

For the first time at any significant world sporting event Samoa reigned supreme. And as is their sevens custom in their hour of triumph, before they departed the scene, the 12 men of the sevens squad took off their shirts and to the roars of the crowd who had waited behind, and no doubt with the echoes of the war dance of 1991 still hanging in the rafters, they laid down their challenge to world rugby one more time.

In both forms of rugby, the 15s and the 7s Samoa had arrived in glorious fashion.

...................

 

Comments 2

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  • 23 September 2015 (5 years ago)

    Starnesy

    We in New Zealand have a lot to thank Samoan rugby for, eg, Bryan Williams, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce to name but a few. All the Pacifica countries have players in other national teams as well in European clubs.
    Maybe the 2017 British & Irish Lions should play their first tour game against a Pacifica team in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa?
    Allow the local rugby unions to make some $$.

    Starnesy.

  • 23 September 2015 (5 years ago)

    Starnesy

    We in New Zealand have a lot to thank Samoan rugby for, eg, Bryan Williams, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce to name but a few. All the Pacifica countries have players in other national teams as well in European clubs.
    Maybe the 2017 British & Irish Lions should play their first tour game against a Pacifica team in Fiji, Tonga or Samoa?
    Allow the local rugby unions to make some $$.

    Starnesy.