Samoa are coming into this competition on the back of a dominant win against a half-strength Wallaby side in Sydney, a defeat that ended a lot of Australian players’ world cup hopes before the Tri-Nations had even kicked off. In that game, the Samoans led 17-0 after half an hour and 29-13 after fifty-five minutes, and while the Wobblies emptied the bench of heavy-hitters Kurtley Beale, Will Genia, Scott Higginbotham and Dan Vickerman and restored some respectability to the scoreline – it ended 32-23 – the Samoans had served notice that they were in business for RWC11.
Samoa are in Pool D, along with South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Namibia. Their win over the Wallabies will particularly have troubled Wales; the Taffs have consistently struggled against teams from the Pacific Islands in world cups. They’ve played Samoa twice before in world cups, in 1991 and in 1999, and lost both times. Fiji also sunk their hopes of knock-out rugby in a cracker last time out in RWC07. They’ve managed to sneak past Tonga in the past [27-20 in RWC03 and 29-16 in the amateur RWC87], but their record against the islanders in world cups reads a dismal P5 W2 L3.
Samoa will target the Welsh game, and have the firepower to pull it off. Alesana Tuilagi, Sailosa Tagicakibau and Seilala Mapusua will be well-known to fans of the English Premiership, and are known quantities – that doesn’t lessen their quality. Mapusua is clever and tough, and good enough to have won the English Player’s Player of the season award a couple of years ago. Tuilagi [Alesana variety] is – surprise, surprise – a wrecking ball of a runner, a wing who looks for work in the centre of the pitch and carries the ball in contact better than most international backrowers. Tagicakibau is rangy and elegant, a great openfield runner and try-scorer. He’s dangerous in the air and an intuitive finisher with long arms and a good reach for dotting down in tight space.
The Pisi brothers, Tusi and George, complete the three-quarter line; Tusi is turning out for the Suntory Sungoliath Rugby Club [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_saLrADKqNM] at outhalf and younger brother George has signed with Northampton, having knocked about the Auckland Blues and Clermont Auvergne without ever really establishing himself a solid spot in the starting line-up at either club.
Kahn Fotuali’i was a standout scrum-half for Canterbury Crusaders in Super Rugby, regularly starting ahead of All Black Andy Ellis in 2010. He’s got the ability to play a bit of out-half as well, which allows Samoa to stack the centres with four choices rather than having a three/three split between outhalves and centres. Sale Sharks pair Tasesa Lavea and Johny Leota will get gametime in these positions, but I don’t see them making a serious bid to start.
The squad are captained by well-travelled hooker Mahonri “Air Miles” Schwalger, who has played in the Premiership for Sale Sharks, in the Celtic League for the Llanelli Scarlets, in New Zealand provincial competition for Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and Taranaki, and had a couple of spells in Super Rugby for the Hurricanes and the Highlanders. Plant a tree, you carbon monster. His backup is Ti’i Paulo, who’s used to being a back-up: he has been second choice in Clermont Auvergne to Mario Ledesma for the last few years. He started against Leinster in the Heineken Cup last year and was a revelation – a very explosive carrier.
Cencus Johnson of Toulouse, Zak Taulafo of London Wasps, Anthony Perenise [now of Bath, but formerly of Wellington Hurricanes and Otago Highlanders] and Logovi’i Mulipola of Hawkes Bay make up the propping corps. The enormous Johnson is well-known to European rugby fans, the others not so much.
The second row includes Filipo Levi of Newcastle Falcons, Joe Tekori of Castres, Kane Thompson of Dax, Daniel Leo of Begles, four players who top out at about 198cm and have all spent considerable time in the backrow. Tekori had an excellent season for Castres and shone as part of the Barbarians; he has the raw ability to be one of the stars of the world cup. For a huge 120kg+ man he has an awful lot more pace than he has any right to, and he’s a creative offloader and thumping runner.
Flanker Maurie Fa’asavalu played for Samoa in RWC2003, before switching codes to play rugby league for St Helens, England and Great Britain from 2004 until 2010. Conor O’Shea brought him back to union at the start of 2010 for Harlequins. He’s joined in the backrow by Taiasina Tuifua, a 195cm 114kg monster and occasional starter for Waikato Chiefs, and George Stowers of London Irish, who made his debut in 2001 but didn’t get his second cap until 2008. Since then, he has been a fixture in the Samoan backrow. Openside Manaia Salavea is selected on the flank; his twin brother Manu misses out.
Samoa’s likely selection of [15-9] Williams/Tagicakibau/Pisi/Mapusua/Tuilagi/Pisi/Fotuali’i and [8-1] Stowers/Fa’asavalu/Tuifua/Tekori/Leo/Johnson/Schwalger/Taulafo has enough powerful ball carriers [Tuilagi, Tekori, Fa'asavalu], footballers [Mapusua, Fotuali'i] and leadership [Schwalger, Leo and Mapusua] to trouble any team. Whether their set-pieces can hold up to a potential quarter-final opponent is a big question.
Props: Census Johnston [Toulouse], Sakaria Taulafo [Wasps], Anthony Perenise [Bath], Logovi’i Mulipola [Hawke's Bay]
Hookers: Mahonri Schwalger [captain, Highlanders], Ti’i Paulo [Clermont Auvergne], Ole Avei [Bordeaux]
Second-row: Joe Tekori [Castres], Kane Thompson [Dax], Daniel Leo [Beglés] and Filipo Lavea Levi [Newcastle Falcons]
Backrow: Maurie Faasavalu [Harlequins], George Stowers [London Irish], Ofisa Treviranus [Malie] Taiasina Tuifua [Waikato Chiefs] Manaia Salavea [Narbonne]
Scrum-half: Kahn Fotuali’i [Ospreys], Jeremy Sua [West Harbour], Augustino Junior Poluleuligaga [Exeter Chiefs]
Outhalf: Tusi Pisi [Suntory Sungoliaths], Tasesa Lavea [Sale Sharks]
Centres: Johny Leota [Sale Sharks], Seilala Mapusua [Kubota Spears], George Pisi [Northampton], Eliota Sapolu Fuimaono [Gloucester]
Wings: Alesana Tuilagi [Leicester Tigers], Sailosi Tagicakibau [London Irish], David Lemi [London Wasps]
Fullback: Paul Williams [Stade Francais], James So’oialo [Northern United]