Thursday, 8 November 2018

The underachievement of the Samoan rugby development system relative to Fiji and Tonga

Samoa A, Fiji Warriors, and Tonga A captain with the Pacific Challenge trophy
One thing we see often in the rugby world is the lumping together of the three Pacific Island sides Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. However one notable and quite marked difference between them is the productiveness of each nation's development systems in successfully getting players to the highest level.
Image result for Fijian Drua
Even minus 100+ professional players
in Europe or the Southern Hemisphere
Fiji still has the "on-island" talent to
win the Australian NRC this year

Fiji are the strongest Pacific Island in terms of homegrown born & raised "on-island" talent and export the most players by some margin, in particular wingers, to one of the sport's elite professional leagues.

Usually at least over 85% of their team is born & raised in Fiji apart two or three players, one of which is often the 10 shirt which was held by their all time most capped player Nicky Little for a long time, and more recently over the past four years been worn by Ben Volavola or Josh Matavesi.

In all this season there are 95 homegrown Fijian players playing in a professional league in Western Europe this season, 47 of whom are in one of the three main European leagues. There were also 16 Fijians in the Super Rugby this year and 28 in the Mitre 10 Cup and NRC (not including the 35 man Fijian Drua squad which won the trophy).

Whereas Samoa is basically the opposite with the majority of their squad being either born in New Zealand or having moved there as a child. This can be summed up looking at their recent 31 man November squad with about 27 players who mostly grew up in New Zealand or Australia.

This season there are only 8 players who grew up in Samoa at least to the age of 15 or 16 in one Europe's three main leagues, along with only two in Super Rugby, and five in the Mitre 10 Cup or NRC (and two of those five only played 23 minutes between them over the entire season).

In between those two in terms of producing homegrown players at the top level is Tonga, who similarly to Samoa have numerous players raised in New Zealand or Australia, but not quite to the same extent. Roughly 10-12 of their 30 man squad this November was mostly raised in Tonga.

Tonga does not export the overall quantity of homegrown players to elite leagues as Fiji, with about 20 in the three main European leagues this season, along with 13 in Super Rugby (6 of whom were based in Japan) and 18 in the Mitre 10 Cup and NRC this year. However they do have players spread more evenly across positions. If you were to look only at the forwards then they export just as many players to professional leagues as Fiji do, and comfortably more front rowers.


Also worth noting that of all the Tier 2 nations it is only really Fiji and Tonga, who can legitimately complain about losing players to bigger nations on a noteworthy scale.

Fiji currently has a total of 16 homegrown players active in professional rugby who have been named in Tier 1 nation squads. The latest being Alivereti Raka and Isi Naisarani, the latter of whom played for the Wallabies in a trial game last August even though he is not officially eligible until next March.

They are the Tier 2 nation who lose by far the largest amount of homegrown talent from their domestic development system to Tier 1 nations. Unlike the other Pacific Islands, they also get back far less in terms of getting New Zealand or Australian trained players than those they lose. It's a remarkable testament to their depth, that even minus 13 centres/wingers who have swapped to Tier 1 nations their national team still has such incredible options in those positions to select from.

Homegrown Pacific Islanders active in professional rugby with Tier 1 nations
Fiji

Tonga
Nathan Hughes
ENG
N8
Wasps
Int’l

Taniela Tupou
AUS
TH
Queensland Country
Int’l
Isi Naisarani
AUS
N8
Melbourne Rising

Pasi Uluilakepa
NZL
TH
Wellington
U20
Manoa Vosawai
ITA
N8
Vannes
Int’l
Sitaleki Timani
AUS
LK
Clermont
Int’l
Tevita Kuridrani
AUS
CT
Canberra Vikings
Int’l
Vaea Fifita
NZL
FL
Wellington
Int’l
Seta Tamanivalu
NZL
CT
Bordeaux-Bègles
Int’l
Shannon Frizell
NZL
FL
Tasman
Int’l
Virimi Vakatawa
FRA
CT
Racing 92
Int’l
Lopeti Timani
AUS
FL
La Rochelle
Int’l
Marika Koroibete
AUS
WG
Melbourne Rising
Int’l
Malakai Fekitoa
NZL
CT
Toulon
Int’l
Eto Nabuli
AUS
WG
Bordeaux-Bègles
Int’l
Frank Halai
NZL
WG
Pau
Int’l
Waisake Naholo
NZL
WG
Taranaki
Int’l


Sefa Naivalu
AUS
WG
Melbourne Rising
Int’l

Samoa
Taqele Naiyaravoro
AUS
WG
Northampton
Int’l
Fritz Lee
NZL
N8
Clermont
7s
Noa Nakaitaci
FRA
WG
Lyon
Int’l
David Smith
NZL
WG
Castres
7s
Alivereti Raka
FRA
WG
Clermont



Joe Ravouvou
NZL
WG
Auckland
7s

Semesa Rokoduguni
ENG
WG
Bath
Int’l

Henry Speight
AUS
WG
Ulster
Int’l


Tonga also has a total of 7 born and raised players active in elite professional rugby who are cap tied to Tier 1 nations in New Zealand or Australia. That is comfortably less than Fiji, but overall Tonga actually loses more players to higher ranked nations than probably anyone else in the world owing to the numbers of young players who have moved to Japan.

There are many Tongans in Japan, 12 have played for the Brave Blossoms over this RWC cycle, plus others for the 7s team, whilst this year's U20 team featured four. Not all those players would have necessarily made the Tongan team, but some like Amanaki Mafi, or a prospect like Tevita Tatafu surely would do. The Ikale Tahi nearly lost their current number 8 Sione Vailanu to Japan as well after he was called up to their Wellington 7s squad in 2016 but didn't end up playing.
Image result for Fritz Lee new zealand
Fritz Lee representing NZ 7s in 2010

On the otherhand there are only currently two professional players, David Smith and Fritz Lee, who were born and raised in Samoa at least to 15 or 16 and who are cap tied to other nations. Neither were full All Blacks but played for New Zealand (very briefly) at 7s. They both also could have used the Olympic qualifying loophole in 2016 to be eligible for Samoa, but in the end didn't.

So to say Samoa, unlike Fiji, get a substantial net gain in players from the New Zealand system is an understatement. In the nearly 9 years since since Samoa last saw a homegrown player who grew up in the country to at least age 15 switch to a major nation they have selected c. 80 players raised in New Zealand or Australia.

Relative to Fiji and Tonga, the Samoans do not lose really that many homegrown players to major nations. Only two players who lived there to at least 15 or 16 have made All Black test debuts in the professional era (Casey Laulala and Sosene Anesi), Fiji has had 12 homegrown players make test debuts for Tier 1 nations just in the past four years (with Raka and Naisarani still to come), and Tonga 5 players plus all of those in Japan. In terms of active players in professional rugby Samoa has lost as many homegrown players to Tier 1 nations as Spain and fewer than Zimbabwe.

It is of course no mystery as to why there would be so many players raised in New Zealand in the Samoan team. According to the 2013 census there are 144,138 people who identify themselves as being of Samoan or part Samoan ethnicity in New Zealand. That's nearly 75% the size of population of 196,400 in Samoa itself (add Australia to that and it's probably nearer 85%), so players from New Zealand form a considerable percentage of their eligible player pool, all who would get the benefits of coaching, facilities, and pathways to professionalism that don't exist in the same way in Samoa.

By contrast 14,445 people who identify as Fijian ethnicity in New Zealand, which is less than 2% the size of Fiji's considerably bigger population of 905,502. So you would also expect a far higher percentage of their eligible player pool to be Fijian born and raised players.

Image result for savea vito
Nonu, Savea, Kaino, Vito four players of
Samoan heritage lineup at RWC 2015
But whilst you would probably expect a fair amount of Samoa's team to be raised in New Zealand, what does remain a mystery is why the disparity is simply so enormous between the Samoan players who were born or emigrated as children to New Zealand, countless of whom have become genuinely world class players at the very highest level (the All Blacks have had 7-8 players with Samoan heritage in each of their last four RWC squads), and the Samoan players who stay on the island to at least to 15 or 16 who seem to be massively underachieving and not realising their potential.

If you were to line up a fantasy XV of players from Samoan background who grew up in New Zealand (with the likes of Ardie Savea, Rieko Ioane, Victor Vito, Richie Mo'unga, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Anton Lienert-Brown, Patrick Tuipulotu plus many others including those in the Samoan team) and lined it up against what an XV from players who grew up mostly in Samoa would be it would simply be a mismatch. One would be a potential RWC semi finalist, the other barely in the world's top 16. Players of that level coming from the Samoan system are few and far between.

Former hooker Mahonri Schwalger, founder of Rugby Academy Samoa, has acknowledged that the majority of the players in Samoan teams in recent years have been from overseas saying "we don’t have the resources in terms of coaching, and facilities to develop our boys to the top level".

However whilst that may be true, it still doesn't explain everything. Tonga is an even smaller country than Samoa, also have a significant population in New Zealand and Australia, plus would likely have similar issues in regards to coaching and facilities yet the chasm between New Zealand born Tongans and homegrown Tongans does not exist in nearly the same way.
Image result for shannon frizell
The most recent Tongan born and
raised All Black Shannon Frizell

Tonga are comfortably outperforming Samoa when it comes to producing homegrown talent progressing to the elite level both in quantity and quality. For example just this week the 2019 New Zealand Super Rugby squads were named and there were six homegrown Tongan players, that's more in five teams than there were Samoans across 14 teams in the Mitre 10 Cup.

Overall Tonga have nearly three times the amount of homegrown players than Samoa do in one of the sport's major professional leagues. Over the past five years or so Tonga has been producing more All Blacks or Wallabies than Samoa has Super Rugby players.

This underachievement is possibly historical as well if you look back at the pattern of results betwen the Pacific Islands in the pre-RWC era. This was prior to so much influence from the New Zealand system and where most of these teams were "on-island" players and suggestive of a similar pattern.

From the 88 tests played between the three Pacific Islands prior to RWC 1987 (which at the time was most of their fixtures), Fiji were comfortably on top with a win percentage of 72%, Tonga second on 44%, whilst Samoa trailed behind on 23% with just 8 wins from 39 (and only 2 wins from 18 against Fiji).
Image result for frank bunce samoa
Frank Bunce and Stephen Bachop playing for Samoa during
their breakthrough win over Wales at RWC 1991

Both Fiji (against Australia in the 1950s, or the Lions in the 1970s) and Tonga (against Australia in 1973) also recorded highly notable wins over major teams in that period too. Samoa's breakthrough win over a major nation famously came at RWC 1991 against Wales, with a large factor behind that being a squad boosted with players from New Zealand, which comprised half of their XV that day including players such as Frank Bunce, Stephen Bachop, Pat Lam, Apollo Perelini, or Timo Tagaloa.

The introduction of players of that calibre in the RWC era was a turning point for Samoan rugby. A pre-RWC era win percentage for Samoa against Fiji and Tonga of 23% increased significantly to 64% in the RWC era, making them the top ranked Pacific Island ahead of close rival Fiji on 60%, and Tonga on 27%. Indeed there was a run of games between 1987-2000 where Samoa only lost 4 times in 26 matches against Fiji and Tonga (although as we speak right now they are on their worst ever run of results against their Pacific rivals in the RWC era with just one win from their last 8). Samoa also now have more wins against Tier 1 nations than any other Tier 2 nation, and in a period from 2010-2013 worked their way to becoming the only side to date outside Tier 1 to reach top 8 in the World Rankings.


So why are so relatively few players who grew up through the Samoan system at least to aged 15 or 16 reaching the elite level when you consider both how many New Zealand born players to Samoan parents, or Samoan born players who moved to New Zealand as children have become among the world's best, and how the other Pacific Islands Fiji and Tonga are both producing much more?

There must be the exact same natural talent and physically gifted players in Samoa as New Zealand, but something somewhere in the system must be going wrong.
Image result for viliamu afatia samoa
Viliamu Afatia is the only "on-island"
player from Samoa's best ever U20
team of 2009 that finished 7th to
progress to a lengthy pro career

Samoa's U20s were for some time the strongest performing nation outside Tier 1 at that level, but have a terrible rate at converting that talent to the senior ranks. Their best ever U20 side was in 2009 beating Scotland and Ireland to finish 7th and featured about 2/3 "on-island" players. Yet only three players from that team (Uini Atonio, Fa'atiga Lemalu, Viliamu Afatia) have had meaningful careers at an elite level, two of those were New Zealand born players from the team, and one of them now plays for France. Most of those "on-island" players from that team have disappeared into total obscurity.

The Ireland U20 squad that year produced five members of their RWC 2015 squad and three 2017 British & Irish Lions, whilst the Samoan U20 squad that beat it produced only one player of their RWC 2015 squad in Afatia. In fact if you look at the past 15 Samoan age grade squads between them they have only produced one single start in a RWC match for Samoa (which was Fa'atoina Autagavaia vs Scotland in 2015). That's a remarkable stat considering they have been consistently in the top tier competition for most of that period. Players from New Zealand and Australia's age grade teams since 2004 have made more appearances in Samoan teams at the past three RWCs than Samoa's own.


Since then their squad increasingly became more like the senior team in leaning on players based in New Zealand in Australia. In 2014 as few as 4 out of 28 players in the squad were based in Samoa. This year though with 19 out of a squad of 26 the U20s selected a much more Samoa based squad than usual, but the gulf that exists between the level of their "on-island" talent and that of Fiji's was pretty clear. After an easy route to the final via a lopsided pool draw where Samoa U20 did not look particularly impressive against weak opposition, they were then comprehensively thrashed 58-8 by the Fijians. Samoa's U20 team this year was possibly not in the world's top 15 or 16.

Where there are signs of more positivity it was came with the recent slightly surprising victory of a predominantly domestic based Samoa 'A' squad in the Americas Pacific Challenge. There is also talk some of those "on-island" players could get a Fijian Drua type side in the NRC from World Rugby.
Image result for Melani Matavao otago
Melani Matavao has been a success
story this year as a talented young
"on-island" player from Samoa to
breakthrough in the national team

and is also the only such players under
the age of 25 in professional rugby

Also this year we have seen one of their best homegrown prospects for several years in scrum half Melani Matavao emerge into a starting position in the national team and as a successor to Kahn Fotuali'i. Tumua Manu, although not yet in the national team, also worked his way from Samoa to a place in Super Rugby with the Blues and now for next year the Chiefs. Hopefully there will be more "on-island" players inspired to follow Matavao's path into international rugby and Samoa can make better use of some of the talent that surely is there.

However we have been listing players from Tier 2 nations for several years now and without a doubt the trend has been heading downwards for those Samoans making it in professional rugby.

The pool of homegrown Samoan players in one of main three leagues in Europe has been shrinking as slowly older players such as David Lemi, Zak Taulafo, Maurie Fa'asavalu, Alesana Tuilagi have been fading off the scene at the elite level. Also of the 8 players this season in the three main leagues in Europe the only one of them who is under 30 years old is 28.

So unless something changes then by the time we reach this point of the next RWC cycle the pool of homegrown Samoan players in elite professional rugby could be even smaller.

Realistically some of those players such as Joe Tekori, Taiasina Tuifua, or David Smith are likely nearer the end than start of their careers at the top end of the sport now. Younger players to have moved to Top 14 clubs France as Espoirs in recent times have either dropped to Pro D2 like Robert Lilomaiava, or simply not broken through to professional level at all like Paul Ah Him or Laki Lee.

Again to contrast, this season there are over 40 Fijians and 20 Tongans under the age of 25 in professional leagues in Western Europe, and the Mitre 10 Cup or NRC in the Southern Hemisphere, whilst the sole homegrown Samoan player under 25 is Matavao at Otago.


The way things are going it seems the very low percentage of homegrown players in the Samoan squad we have seen named this November could become the norm moving into the 2020's.

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