Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
8 July 2015
This is a piece I wrote for a history of the 1991 Rugby World Cup. I tried to capture with dignity (and fairness!?) one of rugby's most memorable days. Though perhaps Welsh fans might not agree!
This game is recorded in world rugby history as one of the greatest of upsets. The Welsh team ran onto their famous ground with over one hundred years of distinguished association with the game to their credit. As co-hosts to the World Cup they had a great weight of home expectation on their shoulders. Western Samoa had only been a significant rugby participant for less than five years. Surely the result would be a foregone conclusion.
Samoa had not even been in realistic contention to be invited to the first Rugby World Cup four years before. They had only made their first tour outside of other Pacific islands and New Zealand in 1988-89. On that ambitious trip around the world, budgeting was so sparse that players were asked to provide their own blazers. All that the Western Samoa Rugby Union could afford was the official jacket pocket! The captain of the Samoans, Peter Fatialofa, recalled attaching his blazer emblem via the clever use of chewing gum!
In 1991 Western Samoa, as the country was known as then, (the official match programme at the World Cup rather off-handedly called them ‘W.Samoa’) had a population of only 160,000. But with a steely attitude they put their players bodies where their opponents were not prepared to.
Never before was there seen such fierce and determined tackling. Manu Samoa, as they were nicknamed, (after an ancient warrior) thoroughly deserved their 16-13 victory. For the Welsh, to lose their opening game was a disaster. With Australia also in Pool 3 Wales looked doomed to miss out on the quarter-finals.
Quite simply the Red Dragons of Wales faltered in the face of the offensive. Though the margin looks close, in the end there was nothing but abject despair for the home team. For the Samoans the singing and celebrations led to flag waving and sights not before seen by the wider rugby world.
Local humour did shine through. “We lost to Western Samoa,” a clever quip began, “imagine what might have happened if we’d played all of Samoa! A Cardiff newspaper banner the next day shouted ‘Rock bottom!’ Coach Alan Davies said, ‘We thought we could match them for strength but we certainly came off second best.’
Back home in Apia, the capital city, the Samoan population boggled for the first time at the wonder of live TV. A national network had not yet arrived in the tiny country. Instead seven giant screens were erected in Apia Park the main rugby ground and the game was beamed in via satellite in the middle of the night. Young and old huddled under blankets and saw TV for the first time.
Reports from the capital said that for the best viewing of the TV screens, some of the populace arrived eight hours before kickoff. When as many as 15,000 crowded into the ground the most hardened supporters went without toilet visits, because the absence would surely have cost them their seat. For some Samoan children the Rugby World Cup became part of their education. Said one headmaster of a local school, “We are so isolated many of people have never left the islands. As they couldn’t grasp why we had to watch the games in the middle of the night, we had to explain time zones to them.”
When Western Samoa won it was said that “never was there a bigger and prouder celebration.” What a roar must have gone up when the sight was seen of the team doing the ‘Manu Samoa’ war dance before and after the game! Not to mention when the hugely popular Fatialofa, on the live telecast, asked to send a message home to his family, but in the excitement forgot the name of the youngest of his five children!
The Samoans, coached by Peter Schuster and ex-All Black star Bryan Williams, were superior in all aspects of play. To be fair it has to be said they were helped by a try to centre To’o Vaega. The French referee Patrick Robin signalled a try after the Welsh fullback Anthony Clement seemed to have definitely touched down behind the goal line for a defensive 22-metre line drop out. On the other hand when flanker Sila Vaifale scored the second Samoan try the TV freeze-frame showed no fewer than seven Samoans in the picture with not a Welsh player in sight. A further indication of the battering tackling can be seen in the fact that three Welsh players were injured and taken off. Lock forward Phil May dislocated a shoulder. He and the flanker Richie Collins took no further part in the tournament.
British writers, searching for reasons why their giant had been slayed, began to point at the high percentage of Samoan players who were born, raised, lived, or had been schooled in New Zealand. Such criticisms took no account of the historically close social circumstances of New Zealand and Samoa. However it had to be admitted that Frank Bunce, Pat Lam, and Steve Bachop, while Samoans for this tournament later claimed a New Zealand heritage and appeared for the All Blacks. Indeed Lam, in his career had been a New Zealand sevens player first in 1990. Then after 1991 he had switched from Samoa to the full All Blacks for one game and by 1995 was back to lead the Samoans in South Africa at the third World Cup event. Some serious attention to the eligibility had to be addressed. The lock forward Mark Birtwistle was of Samoan heritage but his father Bill had been an All Black in the 1960s.
The teams and the officials result;
FULLTIME SCORE: WESTERN SAMOA 16 WALES 13
Halftime Score: Western Samoa 3 Wales 3
Scoring: For Western Samoa: Tries by T.Vaega and S.Vaifale. 1 conversion and 2 penalties by M.Vaea.
Scoring: For Wales: Tries by A.Emyr and I.Evans. 1 conversion and 1 penalty by M.Ring.
Team 1: WESTERN SAMOA Team 2: WALES
FB Anetelea Aiolupo (Moata’a) Anthony Clement (Swansea)
W Brian Lima (Marist St Joseph’s) Ieuan Evans © (Llanelli)
C To’o Vaega (Auckland, New Zealand) Scott Gibbs (Neath)
C Frank Bunce (North Harbour. New Zealand) Mike Hall (Cardiff)
W Timo Tagaloa (Wellington, New Zealand) Arthur Emyr (Cardiff)
FH Steven Bachop (Canterbury, New Zealand) Mark Ring (Cardiff)
HB Matthew Vaea (Marist St Joseph’s) Robert Jones (Swansea)
8 Pat Lam (Auckland, New Zealand) Phil Davies (Llanelli)
F Apollo Perelini (Auckland, New Zealand) Richie Collins (Cardiff)
L Mata’afa Keenan (Auckland, New Zealand) Kevin Moseley (Newport)
L Mark Birtwistle (Wellington, New Zealand) Phil May (Llanelli)
F Sila Vaifale (Marist St Joseph’s) Emyr Lewis (Llanelli)
P Vili Alalatoa (Sydney, Australia) Laurance Delaney (Llanelli)
H Stan To’omalatai (Vaiala) Kevin Waters (Newbridge)
P Peter Fatialofa © (Auckland, New Zealand) Mike Griffiths (Cardiff)
Tavita Sio (Sydney, Australia) *Garin Jenkins (Pontypool)
Eddie Ioane (Auckland, New Zealand) Hugh Williams-Jones (South Wales Police)
Junior Paramore (Counties, New Zealand) *Martyn Morris (Neath) Tupo Fa’amasino (Wellington, New Zealand) *Mike Rayer (Cardiff)
Filipo Saena (Moata’a) David Evans (Cardiff)
Tu Nu’uali’itia (Counties, New Zealand) Andrew Booth (Cardiff)
Replacements in the match:
P.May was replaced by Martyn Morris (Neath), A.Clement was replaced by Mike Rayer (Cardiff) and R.Collins was replaced by Garin Jenkins (Pontypool)
Arguably he was the slowest back on the field but nothing could stop the flying Mortlock; his try that greatly assisted the Aussies in their 22-10 sensational dispatch of the All Blacks.
Jedforest, Newcastle and Scotland
51 internationals for Scotland 1988-99
Described once as ‘a one-off, a complete and utter mystery’ as a person, Gary Armstrong ended his international career remembered as a deeply steadfast scrumhalf whose commitment to any team he played for could never be denied. The 'mystery' referred to extreme shyness.
But like a lot of shy rugby people Armstrong expressed himself strongly once he ran on to the field. He always tackled way above his diminutive stature, was an elusive runner, especially around the short side of a scrum, and above all was unswerving in his courage. He may have been a quiet man but when he played his final game for his country, captaining the team against the All Blacks at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, he was described afterwards by his coach Jim Telfer as ‘the bravest man I ever saw play for Scotland’.
Armstrong made his debut for Scotland in 1988 and only months later was in the British Isles team which toured Australia. On that trip he failed to make the test teams, losing out to Robert Jones of Wales, but in 1990 he played some of his greatest rugby. Not only was he a powerful force in the Scottish touring team to New Zealand, a team which harried the All Blacks over two close tests, but he also played a pivotal role in Scotland’s epic victory over the ‘auld enemy’, England, in the critical Five Nations and Grand Slam match of that year.
Injuries kept him out for two seasons and one time, after 28 tests, he actually retired from test rugby to concentrate on his dearly loved Jedforest team. But Scotland seemed to always call Armstrong back and each time they did he gave his usual 110%. He was captain of Scotland when they won the Five Nations in 1999 (of great satisfaction considering they were 100-1 outsiders when the season started). He also was one of the rare players to play the 1991 World Cup series, then miss the 1995 series in South Africa (he was injured), only to be back for the World Cup in 1999.
He retired from international play after captaining and playing strongly in the quarter-final match against New Zealand on his beloved Murrayfield.
After sevens years of productive play as a professional with the Newcastle Falcons, Armstrong became one of the first professionals with the new Scottish Borders professional team in 2002, signing as a 35 year old on a three-year contract!
Which former Springbok test rugby captain won a Rugby World Cup winner's medal for Australia in 1999?