November 16, 2022
As Stephen Crichton’s now-famous one-pointer sailed between the sticks at London’s Emirates Stadium, Sāmoan communities stretching from Apia and Auckland to Western Sydney and Utah rose up as their red and blue flags fluttered in the breeze and their booming voices echoed across neighbourhoods.
For the first time in their proud history, they had punched their ticket to a World Cup Final.
The journey to this point has proven long and difficult but, as they stand in the face of history yearning to craft the rugby league chronicle of a lifetime, they have an army of people who have laid the platform for this grand occasion.
Their first ever international came as Western Sāmoa in the 1986 Pacific Cup in a 34-12 win over Tokelau in Avarua, the Cook Islands capital.
The early-90s saw Pacific Cup domination for Western Sāmoa culminating in a 15-game winning streak spanning over four years.
The mid-to-late-90s and 00s, however, was a different story.
Now competing as Sāmoa, they managed just five wins over a 23-game period from 1995 to 2006.
Despite an abundance of NRL and Super League stars of Sāmoan descent in the 2010s, success on the world stage still proved hard to come by.
They showed some life at the 2013 World Cup before being bundled out in the quarters by a Petero Civoniceva-skippered Fijian squad but failed to capitalise on any momentum that they had built, finishing winless at the 2017 World Cup.
In the years following their disastrous 2017 campaign, things started coming together and optimism began to blossom.
Jarome Luai, who debuted for Sāmoa as a 20-year-old at the 2017 World Cup, blossomed into one of the NRL’s elite playmakers, Brian To’o followed in Luai’s footsteps two years after and enjoyed a similar trajectory at NRL-level, and Apia-born Stephen Crichton burst onto the NRL scene as a teenager and had NRL Grand Final and State of Origin experience under his belt before donning the blue and white Sāmoan jersey for the first time at this World Cup.
Buoyed by the commitments of veteran props Junior Paulo and Josh Papali’i as well as their band of Western Sydney wonders who have had a three-year stranglehold over the NRL, Sāmoa were in an unprecedented position.
No longer were they left with Australia and New Zealand’s scraps but with genuine stars willing to bleed for the jersey and make financial sacrifices to represent their ‘Aiga on rugby league’s biggest stage.
Some of the NRL’s brightest young stars Joseph Sua’ali’i, Izack Tago, Taylan May, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Spencer Leniu and Mathew Feagai jetted off the UK alongside their leaders to inspire the next generation of Sāmoans.
Their tournament could not have gotten off to a worse start.
England thumped them 60-6 in the World Cup opener Newcastle and Tago, Tabuai-Fidow, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Tyrone May all suffered tournament-ending injuries; they entered the clash undercooked and paid the price severely.
Matt Parish’s men had two weeks to stabilise their campaign and did so with big wins over Greece and France.
Down on troops, Parish called upon UK-based veterans Tim Lafai and Ligi Sao who made their mark immediately and grew to become key components of the squad.
To earn a shot at semi-final revenge against England, they had to first take care of an undefeated Tongan unit also driven by a shot at vengeance against England who had spectacularly ended their 2017 World Cup campaign.
Sāmoa entered the clash as outsiders but willed their way to victory against their Pasifika rivals in an 80-minute bloodbath that exemplified the spirit of the sport in its truest manner.
It would require another upset – this time against a dominant English team on home soil – to advance to their maiden World Cup Final.
The clash consisted of a smorgasbord of moments; several sequences that rugby league will not soon forget.
Paulo’s first-half sin-bin that threatened to derail Sāmoa – and likely would have a month earlier – if not for a newly-augmented resolve and grit, Luai’s expeditious footwork into a Paulo offload inches from the ground into a Crichton four-pointer, Crichton’s knack for snuffing out misguided passes and racing off with them rearing its head in the dying stages with the game in the balance and Herbie Farnworth’s game-tying, breakaway effort as the clock ticked towards 80:00 that sent the Lions-favouring Emirates crowd into madness.
And, of course, Crichton’s 83rd-minute, walk-off one-pointer that saw Sāmoans across the planet rise in unison.
Tears cascaded down Paulo’s perspiring cheeks as he cried out to the heavens, teammates hog piling atop one another off to his side.
Parades broke out among communities everywhere; chehoo-ing, flag-flying, horn-tooting Sāmoans dancing, singing, and chanting because of the work of a small group of their fellow countrymen on one of the world’s most famous turfs.
Paulo, his teammates, all those came before them – from George Carmont and Leeson Ah Mau to the Puletua brothers and Francis Meli – and Toa Sāmoa’s 650,000-plus supporter base will be desperately dreaming for a recreation of those scenes this Sunday morning (AEDT time) at Old Trafford.
Where better for this group of heart-capturing Sāmoans to dream than The Theatre of Dreams itself?
November 16, 2022
November 16, 2022
November 16, 2022