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Page last updated at 20:37 GMT, Tuesday, 4 August 2009 21:37 UK

The bone-rattlers: Samoan rugby

By Sean Davies

Colours: Blue and white
Rugby songs: Siva Tau, The Banner of Freedom

Rugby was introduced to Samoa in 1920 by the Catholic religious order the Marist brothers and - given later results - few Welsh players and fans will feel this was a Christian act.

Samoa celebrate their 1999 World Cup win over Wales

Four years later the Western Samoa Rugby Union was formed and they played their first international match against Fiji in the Samoan capital of Apia.

The game kicked off at 7am to allow the home team to get to work afterwards and the pitch's most striking feature was a palm tree on the half-way line, but Fiji overcame all obstacles to run out 6-0 winners.

It took time for the islanders - whose population is less than 200,000 - to establish themselves as a recognised international rugby force, the 1954 tour of Fiji and Tonga and the 1974 eight-match tour of New Zealand important landmarks.

Western Samoa won the first tri-series between themselves, Fiji and Tonga in 1982, but as they were still not official members of the International Rugby Board they were not invited to the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

Wales' first encounter with the little-known islanders had come in 1986 in Apia as part of their South Pacific tour.

Coaches Tony Gray and Derek Quinnell were building an exciting young team, the demanding tour in sweltering heat helping to forge spirit in a squad that would go on to finish third in the World Cup.

Wales front up to the Samoan war dance before the 1999 World Cup game
Wales front up to the Samoan war dance, the Siva Tau

A relatively straightforward win over Fiji was followed by a brutal victory in Tonga, a Test that scrum-half Robert Jones described as one of the dirtiest he had ever played in.

Next came the Samoans, and - despite the presence in the home number seven jersey of a youthful Michael Jones - Wales eased to a 32-14 victory that was as comfortable as any of their fans would have expected.

Western Samoa gained their full IRB membership in 1988 and marked the occasion with their first tour to Europe, with matches in Wales and Ireland.

Having lost to Aberavon and Bridgend, the tourists' expectations were low ahead of the Test against Wales in Cardiff.

They held the home side - led by new coach John Ryan - to 12-6 at half-time, but Wales then eased to a 28-6 victory, Nigel Davies scoring two tries with new caps Carwyn Davies and John Wakeford also crossing.

1991: Stephen Bachop and Brian Lima crunch Mike Hall
1991: Stephen Bachop and Brian Lima crunch Mike Hall

Western Samoa built their experience with a 14-match tour of Europe the following year, hardening a team that - despite the loss of Michael Jones to New Zealand - qualified for the 1991 World Cup with new stars like Frank Bunce, Brian Lima, Steve Bachop, Apollo Perelini, Pat Lam and Peter Fatialofa.

Their dynamic game truly began to emerge, characterised by a typical south sea-island style of attacking flair and - above all - bone-crunching physical confrontation in the tackle and breakdown.

They were also boosted by a new war dance in 1991, the Ma'ulu'ulu Moa replaced by the more aggressive Siva Tau.

The islanders' debut on the biggest stage in rugby was against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park, a match still etched deep in the nightmares of every Welsh fan.

Alan Davies, the new Wales coach following the disastrous end of Ron Waldron's reign in the summer, had been given precious little time to prepare his side.

He gambled with a number of injured players - including Mark Ring playing effectively on one leg at fly-half - and Wales were shaken from the outset by the remarkable physicality of the islanders.

Wales veteran Phil May looks on in misery after being injured in the 1991 game
Wales veteran Phil May looks on in misery after being injured in 1991

Phil May left the field with a dislocated shoulder after one shuddering hit, the veteran lock's disconsolate and bewildered look on the bench seeming to sum up the stunned disbelief of a once-feared rugby nation.

Richie Collins, Scott Gibbs and Anthony Clement also suffered from the Polynesians' brutally physical tackling, Perelini proving the main wrecking ball.

Even so Wales could - and perhaps should - have won, but luck was also going the visitors' way, To'o Vaega awarded a crucial try at the start of the second-half when television evidence seemed to confirm that the covering Robert Jones was first to ground the ball.

Sila Vaifale added a fine second try as the Polynesians won 13-6 in one of the biggest upsets in rugby history.

Wales could not recover and crashed out at the group stages of the Cup, while Western Samoa defeated Argentina 35-12 and lost 9-3 to eventual champions Australia, before falling to Scotland in their quarter-final at Murrayfield.

The islanders went on to have a huge impact on the game in the 1990s, excelling in Sevens and providing a formidable challenge to anyone in Test rugby.

Scott Quinnell in  action in the 1994 tour Test in Samoa
Scott Quinnell in action in the 1994 tour Test in Samoa

Their relationship with New Zealand was complex, many players holding dual qualification and - in pre-Grannygate days - the likes of Michael Jones, Lam and Bachop playing for both countries.

While a lot of Samoan-qualified talent would be lost to the All Blacks, the Polynesians benefited from others like Auckland's Fatialofa, who had honed his talents in the hard school of New Zealand rugby.

After their 1991 humiliation, Wales could not plead ignorance of the challenge to come when they next faced Western Samoa in Apia in 1994.

But the men in red simply could not deal with the power and pace of the islanders, nor the stifling heat, as they slipped from 14-9 down at the break to a crushing 34-9 defeat.

Western Samoa followed their 1991 feat by again reaching the quarter-finals of the 1995 World Cup, where they were knocked out by hosts and eventual winners South Africa.

Neil Jenkins breaks the world points record in the 1999 World Cup game
Neil Jenkins breaks the world points record in the 1999 World Cup game

After the 1991 defeat the widespread joke amongst Welsh fans (and at their expense) had been: 'Thank God we weren't playing all of Samoa'.

When 1999 hosts Wales were again drawn in a World Cup pool with the islanders, that nightmare scenario apparently became a reality, Western Samoa having changed its name to Samoa in 1997 (a decision that did not impress the separate US territory of American Samoa).

Welsh confidence was burgeoning, though, with the country in the grip of Graham Henry-mania and riding high following a 10-match winning streak.

Home hopes seemed to be justified as their powerful scrum destroyed the visitors and earned two penalty tries.

Neil Jenkins' first successful kick at goal broke Michael Lynagh's international points record of 911 and sent the newly built Millennium Stadium into raptures.

Pat Lam's breakaway proves a key turning point in the 1999 clash
Pat Lam's breakaway proves a key turning point in the 1999 clash

But Wales' play was sloppy and Samoa's counter-attacking electrifying as they came from behind before a disbelieving crowd.

Henry turned back to his forwards, but early hero Jenkins gifted Lam an interception score and 18-point full-back Silao Leaega scored the decisive try for a 38-31 win, Wales' first loss at their impressive new home.

After the match Lam and Va'aiga Tuigamala confirmed the suspicion that Wales' style of play had been worked out, saying they knew what to expect from their time under Henry at Auckland.

Wales still reached the quarter-finals where they lost to Australia, while Samoa fell against Scotland in a quarter-final play-off.

The 1999 showdown had seen former All Blacks Bachop, Tuigamala and Lam playing for Samoa, while New Zealanders Brett Sinkinson and Shane Howarth were in the Wales XV.

Just a few months later such international team-hopping would be brought to an end by the Grannygate scandal.

That led to tightened IRB regulations that played a part in weakening Samoan rugby in the new millennium.

Arwel Thomas
Arwel Thomas played a starring role in Wales' win over Samoa in 2000

Samoa returned to Cardiff in 2000 as a team in transition, Wales turning on the style to win 50-6.

Shane Williams crossed for two tries and Arwel Thomas impressed with 20 points as he was recalled for the last of his battles with Jenkins for the Wales number 10 jersey.

It was Wales' first victory over the islanders since 1988 and a win that levelled the overall series between the teams at three apiece.

The two countries did not cross paths again until their Millennium Stadium meeting in November 2009 - and it was nearly another south seas nightmare for the men in red.

They built an early lead against the visitors, who had been together for less than a week, but a Seilala Mapusua interception try set up a grandstand finale, Wales lucky to emerge with a 17-13 win.

It was not the edge that Wales were looking for ahead of another World Cup meeting, scheduled for 18 September, 2011, in Hamilton, New Zealand.


Samoa perform the Siva Tau

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see also
Wales v Samoa: Full record
31 Jul 09 |  Rugby Union
Samoan rugby songs & war dance
13 Aug 07 |  Welsh
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
Scrum V's rugby history
11 Aug 07 |  Welsh
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales
Country profile: Samoa
19 Oct 11 |  Country profiles

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