In 1995, the first Samoa team had three days to back up between World Cup games. The sacrifices of pioneers has paved the way for the respect the current squad commands, writes BRENDAN BRADFORD.
Tea Ropati had seen a lot in his decade in rugby league, but this one floored him.
The then-30-year-old Samoan back turned to coach Graham Lowe, and with a confused look on his face, held up a piece of paper.
“Is this a stitch up?”
He showed another couple of teammates the match schedule for the upcoming 1995 Rugby League World Cup, which was to be Samoa’s first ever appearance at the tournament.
No one could make sense of it.
“We played France in our first game, then they made us play Wales in our second game three days later. Three days!” Ropati tells CODE Sports.
“Holy heck, how do you do that? It was madness. You wouldn’t even think about it these days.
“We were in trouble from the beginning.”
It was a brutal introduction to international rugby league’s biggest showpiece event, but the reception the squad received after arriving in Cardiff made up for the bad vibes.
With some of the most legendary names in Samoan league and union on board, including the late-great Inga ‘The Winger’ Tuigamala, John Schuster, and the Tuimavave brothers, Tony and Paddy, their bus pulled into the city centre in late September.
At around the same time, Prince Naseem Hamed – a boxing superstar of the era – was knocking out Steve Robinson in a featherweight world title fight at Cardiff Arms Park, just a few blocks away.
“It was a cold, misty evening in Wales and all these fans were streaming out of the stadium,” Samoa legend Willie Poching remembers.
“They saw our bus which was blazed with Samoa all across it, and the boxing fans just went bonkers, chanting ‘WE ARE SAMOA, WE ARE SAMOA,’ it was amazing. What an incredible welcome.”
Twelve days later, Samoa ran in 10 tries in a 56-10 win over France in their opening match of the tournament, but the magnitude of the occasion and the physicality of the encounter took a toll.
Meanwhile, Wales had enjoyed a six day break.
“The France game was our first World Cup game ever – a big occasion – and you know how Samoans are, we didn’t hold back,” says Ropati.
“The night before the Wales game, I was pretty banged up – my knee was all swollen. At dinner, I looked around the room at the boys and they were hurting.
“I tried not to say anything, but I just knew we were going to be in trouble. We needed a miracle.”
Poching remembers the game against Wales in Swansea as the most moving sporting spectacle he’s ever experienced. Wales is a football and union country, but more than 15,000 people packed into Vetch Field that day, and kick-off was delayed by 20 minutes because fans were still filing through the turnstiles.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Where are they going to fit them’,” Poching laughs.
“I cried for the Samoan national anthem, because of what the game meant, but then the Welsh anthem started – and the Welsh, they love their singing, and their anthem is beautiful – so I was crying at their anthem as well. It was just amazing theatre.”
The rugby league miracle that Ropati hoped for never arrived that day. Exhausted and still sore from the France game, Samoa lost a bruising encounter 22-10 to a Jonathan Davies-led Wales team and exited the tournament.
Poching and Ropati are both adamant they’d have made the semi-finals if the draw hadn’t forced them to play so soon after their first match.
“I think we could’ve done as well as the guys are doing today if we’d been given a fair shot,” Ropati jokes.
“If Wales had played three days before I’m pretty sure we would’ve beaten them.”
It might have left a bad taste, but it was the start of something much bigger, and longer lasting.
Every player in that 1995 squad now holds a unique place in Samoan rugby league history.
“I look at that 1995 side with Johnny Schuster and all those boys, and that was the first team that we looked at and thought, ‘Wow, it would be great to give back and be able to play for our humble nation’,” says Monty Betham, who made his Test debut for Samoa at the 2000 World Cup.
Then, as now, there was no money in playing for Samoa. The side Betham played in at the 2000 World Cup was paid just 100 pounds a week, and only given two kits for their two-a-day training sessions in the cold, wet north of England.
But it didn’t matter.
“We didn’t care about what we were getting paid or what we were doing (in 2000),” Betham says.
“It was just being able to follow in their footsteps.”
Five years earlier, Joe Vagana was a bright-eyed tyro playing for the Warriors, and approached Samoa’s first ever World Cup with the same youthful exuberance.
“We all got a tracksuit and a couple of training tops, and as far as we were concerned, we were living the dream,” he tells CODE Sports.
“Being the first team to represent our people at a World Cup was the priority. Everyone wanted to be in that first 17, knowing that whoever was in it carried on their shoulders the weight of those who went before us, and of those who would come after us.”
Poching, 21 at the time of the ’95 tournament, knew that history better than most.
His dad, Eddie, along with the iconic Swanny and Lyndsay Stowers and many others had worked tirelessly to create a national federation in the 1980s. Their dream of a Samoan team was finally realised in 1986, when a side travelled to Rarotonga for the Pacific Cup. The team beat Tokelau, the Cook Islands and Tonga on the way to a spot in the final, where they lost 23-6 to a New Zealand Maori side.
Ropati, whose family is almost as steeped in rugby league history as the Poching clan, played in that tournament.
He found it difficult to focus on the football in the tropical Rarotongan paradise, but the then 21-year-old understood it was a watershed moment.
“Back then, you played club footy and you wanted to represent the Kiwis,” he says.
“The opportunity to play for Samoa wasn’t there, because there was no Samoan team. So, that’s why I jumped at the chance to play in the first one.”
Nine years later, after a successful career in the UK with St Helens, Ropati was selected to play for the Kiwis, but opted to represent his heritage, rather than the place of his birth.
He chuckles when asked about the reaction to his decision. There’s no comparison to be made with the backlash players like Jason Taumalolo, Andrew Fifita and Joseph Sua’ali’i have copped since then.
“No one really cared back then,” he laughs.
“You made your choice and everyone just got on with it. It was just a really cool thing to be able to do.”
For all that has changed, the motivations behind Ropati, Vagana and Betham choosing to represent Samoa are the same as they are for players like Brian To’o, Jarome Luai and Sua’ali’i today.
“It’s about representing our people, our heritage and our parents who sacrificed so much,” Vagana says.
“They couldn’t speak English, didn’t have degrees and didn’t finish high school. Some of them didn’t even make it to high school, it was straight to work in the plantation.
“But the courage they had to leave the Islands and start a better life so we didn’t have to go through the troubles and trials that they had to go through – they wanted more for us.
“We walk on the shoulders of giants.”
With hindsight, Poching, Ropati and Vagana can appreciate the history they helped create. At the time though, without the power of social media and the internet, they had no idea if they’d made any impact.
“There was no Instagram, no camera phones, no Bebo,” Vagana laughs.
“If you were lucky, you had a fifth channel that had sports, but I grew up watching the Winfield Cup on a three-channel TV.”
Unlike their predecessors, the current Samoan side is keenly aware of the impact they’re having.
Stephen Crichton face-timed mates in Sydney hours before his runaway intercept and clutch golden-point field goal against England last weekend.
Vision of parades and celebrations in Apia, Mt Druitt, Otara, South Logan and even in parts of America have given Junior Paulo’s team even more inspiration on their phenomenal run to the final.
It’s a reminder of the global impact the team is having
“These guys are enhancing our legacy,” Poching says.
“They’ve taken the jersey to another place, and the scenes we’re seeing every day around the world, it’s not just pride in the Samoan flag, but it’s pride given to the whole Pasifika community.
“We talk about what happens on the field, but the real power, the real strength and the real legacy is what’s happening off the field.”
Indeed, Vagana, Betham and Ropati all stress the Pacific-wide impact of Samoa’s appearance in the final, and argue the catalyst was Taumalolo and Fifita’s decision to play for Tonga in 2017.
“We rode the Tongan charge after they took it to the next level when Taumalolo and Fifita made their stance and jumped over,” Vagana says.
“That started the wave of our young professional players making the switch at the peak of their careers.
“I’m happy to be Samoan, but I’m happy to be a Pacific Islander too. The blue flag is in the air, but it’s representing all Pacific nations.”
Brendan Bradford is a sports writer for CODE Sports. He primarily covers combat sports, league, union, cycling and athletics. Brendan has worked in sports media for a decade, covering world title fights, World Cups, Grand Slams and Spring Tours.
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