Thursday, 15 December 2016

Samoa approaching end of an era

Image result for Samoa rugby

A brief look at the state of Samoan rugby following a disappointing 2016 which saw them finish down at 15th in the world rankings (5th amongst Tier 2 nations).

After the 1990s, which had been by far the most successful decade in Samoan rugby history, featuring all time Samoan greats like Pat Lam or Stephen Bachop running the show and getting the side to the knockout stages of every 90s RWC, fortunes dipped moving into the new Millennium and increasing professionalism and the next decade was a barren one.

November 2010 is remembered as the turning point. Over 2010 and 2011 a raft of experienced Super Rugby talent, such as Ti'i Paulo, Ole Avei, Anthony Perenise, Tai Tuifua, Kahn Fotuali'i, Tusi Pisi, George Pisi, Johnny Leota and Paul Williams made their entry onto the international stage. With additionally Maurie Fa'asavalu and Alesana Tuilagi returning after lengthy absences to join loyal mainstays like David Lemi or Census Johnston. Those players formed much of the core of the side over the following 5 years.
Image result for samoa australia 2011
Despite numerous disadvantages in
preparation, over a period between
2011 to 2014 Samoa had the most
strongest and most successful side
of any Tier 2 nation in the pro era.

All of a sudden the lineups Samoa were fielding were significantly stronger and soon were delivering the best results up against Tier 1 sides any Tier 2 side has had in the professional era.

In the three years between July 2011 to June 2014, Samoa won 5 from 11 fixtures against Tier 1 sides and reached a high of 7th in the world rankings. Major scalps came against Australia and Wales in their own backyard, plus also trumping Scotland and thumping Italy in South Africa. Whilst all the defeats were highly competitive and came within at least 8 points, with the exception of matches against South Africa and Ireland in 2013.

In fact they were sorely unlucky to have lost at least two of those games, with a terrible touchjudge call with no TMO in Apia costing them in 2012, and losing Tusi Pisi to injury (which would have been recovered but for a three day turnaround) forcing them to play his back up who had a nightmare game against an on form Wales side at the 2011 RWC.

Those wins may not seem a big deal to some, but it should really be considered alongside the handicaps Samoa were facing as Tier 2 side up against Tier 1 opponents.

Sides like Samoa play considerably fewer tests than Tier 1 sides (around 6 per year), when they do play Tier 1 sides it's far more often than not away from home, and like most Tier 2 sides (apart from Japan), they were coming together as a squad usually only 4 days before their match of an international window. Whereas opposition Tier 1 sides had huge advantages in squad cohesion with tournaments lasting a couple months and can afford extra training camps and preparation. Not to mention the gigantic gap between resources and facilities that the sides are able to able to afford.

Put simply the playing field is not really level. The issues Samoa faced over this period were also compounded by an amateurish Union that regularly seemed to suffer from fits of madness in terms of the quotes they gave to the press, and drew complaints from players (nearly all of whom would have been accustomed to professional rugby at their clubs) for lack of competence in even some of the most basic logistical tasks.

For example at the 2011 RWC, Samoa couldn't get a schedule of warm up fixtures organised, and among several things there were reports of failure to even get basic equipment for training sessions. If they had fully professional preparation one wonders how far that group of players could have gone at that tournament.
Image result for Samoan Rugby Union president
In 2014 the SRU president branded
what was one of his most successful
15s sides of all time "spoilt children".

But for a Samoan group of players that was pretty much without doubt the strongest any Tier 2 nation has had in the professional era the Union treated them bizarrely. Even going as far to describe them as "spoilt children", "selfish" and "showing a lack of respect" when complaints were raised in 2014.

That November 2014 window was where the fortunes of this Samoan generation started to fade. That was followed by a disappointing World Cup where there were rumours their preparation both tactically and in terms of fitness was not up to the levels of other sides. 2016 was also another mediocre year that saw them finish the year 15th in the rankings (5th amongst Tier 2 nations).

Unlike with Tonga, who took an old squad to the RWC and rebuilt a lot this year, Samoa stuck with most of their veterans. In fact Alama Ieremia brought back David Lemi and Paul Williams who both had missed the previous year of international rugby.

The lineup they fielded for the heavy defeat against France had an average age of 30 years and 8 months, making it the oldest any side was putting out in November. Samoa and Tonga usually have older squads than others (thanks to younger players in New Zealand often waiting to move to Europe or Japan before committing to them), but that's still a notably old side for a post-RWC year.
Image result for Alama Ieremia Samoa
Alama Ieremia faces a tough task of
regenerating this Samoan side whose
fortunes have faded in recent times.

So considering the poor results last month, there are question marks about this generation of Samoan players can reclaim former triumphs. Alama Ieremia after just six matches is already facing tough criticism from ex-players in the Samoan media. Moving into 2017, which includes important RWC qualifiers where failure could lead to being cast into the bottom band of seeding for 2019, it will be interesting to see how he approaches selection.

Will he stick with an older squad, including several players who will be in their mid 30's by the 2019 RWC and wait until after the qualifiers to blood younger players, or back youngsters like Elia Elia or D'Angelo Leuila who both got their first starts against Canada?

Another thing to keep watching for is how many Samoan eligible Super Rugby players will add themselves to the selection pool and boost Ieremia's options as replacements for some possible upcoming retirements in the run up to 2019 (one priority must be Paul Alo-Emile at tighthead). Last year Samoa didn't have the success they had in 2010/11 in getting more Super Rugby stars to commit, and missing out on Lima Sopoaga and Nepo Laulala who would have been huge boosts to the squad for that tournament and beyond.

Realistically Samoa are not likely to head into RWC 2019 with first choice players in key positions of prop, scrum half and fly half all aged 36 or 37. Ieremia will need to think about identifying who will succeed those players, but that's easier said than done. Those players are all some of the best Samoa have ever had and finding players of the level they were in their prime will be tough.

No comments :

Post a Comment