#Opinion Manu Samoa's 2023 Rugby World Cup Campaign
By Loveni Enari
It was only pride they were playing for, the points that mattered for Manu Samoa disappeared last week versus Japan, but fans at least saw a valiant performance in the narrow loss to England, as once again the team failed to qualify for the quarter finals.
It's the seemingly inevitable sadness we've been suffering for over 20 years since those pioneering Manu Samoa teams of the 1990s so successfully brought our nation to the top table.
We all know it's only regular games against Tier 1 nations that will allow us to truly compete but 'world' Rugby didn't invite us to the first World Cup and have not changed their attitude in the meantime no matter how many more brave, entertaining losses and circle prayer sessions with Tier 1 players we are involved in.
Despite this there was some real good to come of the campaign.
Fritz Lee was our player of the tournament, magnificent play, great leadership. Taleni Seu lived up to his name and Theo McFarland can now walk into any club in the world and name the conditions of his contract.
The front row club was outstanding: the Lay brothers, Paul Alo-Emile, Sama Malolo and the retiring Seilala Lam - go well, great warrior.
Neither can you fault the heart of Christian Lealiifano. What a career he's had. Faafetai le loto tele ma le faaeaea atunu'u. (Thank you for your spirit and your pride in country).
Another positive? For once in a World Cup our forwards were not living off scraps in the set piece. It's been many years coming but finally, we have a scrum of international class. Take a bow, scrum coach, Mahonri Schwalger.
The forward play in general was top notch. Forwards coach, Tom Coventry, must take credit here as our maul defence withstood England's main try-scoring weapon, the rolling maul.
Our defence all tournament, on Faalogo Tana Umaga's watch, has generally been disciplined and effective.
However, it is another early exit from the tournament while the big boys of world rugby continue their private party and our massive, blue tapuiaga from Moamoa to Miami, from Manukau to Melbourne, and back again, is forced to lick our wounds in a corner and be compensated by the fact our Pasifika brothers from Fiji are still flying the flag.
On that basis you'd have to say this campaign, like all the others since the 1990s, has been well short of a pass mark.
(There has been a conscious, and unconscious bias, and straight out racism, on the part of referees against Pasifika players since, well, forever. That's merely a sideshow now in the evaluation of the Manu Samoa campaign but yes, it needs to be called out every time and all the time!)
This morning's crowd-pleasing performance was such a shame as once again our boys showed they had more than enough athleticism, power and fabulous flair but it was a match that ultimately meant nothing as our flight home was already booked.
If the ability was always there and we almost beat the richest rugby nation in the world, what happened, and why are we exiting the competition now and not continuing in the finals' stages?
For the next campaign to finally take that next step and qualify, some questions need to be answered.
In the professional world of international sport, head coach Vaovasamanaia Mapusua knows the buck stops fairly and squarely at his doorstep.
They say a rugby coach's job is nine tenths selection. If that's the case, what do you make of Mapusua's selections?
He insisted on playing Danny Toala, a brilliant, attacking centre for Moana Pasifika and Hawkes Bay, at fullback in the preparatory matches to the tournament. At centre, Mapusua put Duncan Paia'aua, in all of his three international matches.
Then the World Cup started and boom, Paia'aua was at fullback, where he has not played in recent years, and Toala disappeared.
He then reappeared again versus England in his natural position when it was too late, and played a very solid game. What a surprise, a player playing well in his natural position.
Was it any surprise that Paia'aua made the mistake he made and was yellow carded two minutes into the team's first match?
Combinations are important all over the field but especially so in the backs where understanding of each others' play is vital to make the correct, split-second decisions under pressure.
The one part of Samoa's play that has been below standard all tournament has been the back play, Mapusua's field of expertise.
If Nigel Ah-Wong was one of Samoa's best wingers, and he played that way versus England, why was he dropped for the all-important, Japan match? Why was Neria Foma'i not given more of an opportunity as he also looked sharp versus England?
Why was halfback Ereatara Enari selected? He was the number one halfback for the last two years, then the World Cup started and suddenly he wasn't. Why was he not afforded the opportunity, like the other reserve players received, in the nothing game against England when we were already on the plane home?
Puzzling, illogical selections, to say the least.
Then there's the little matter of the campaign leader. When coaches select their captain, rugby knowledge says he must be the best in his position and an automatic selection for every match.
Why then did Mapusua choose Michael Alaalatoa as his captain and then only start him in the easy, Chile match and again, the nothing, goodbye game?
He also chose Chris Vui as co-captain, yet neither of these players started the must-win match versus Japan. Why, what, how?!
His contract is to the next World Cup, so this mission was supposed to be development-focussed, with 2027 in mind.
Again, a failure, as our team is one of the oldest in the tournament. Australia have many young players there who will take vital experience from their failure. The majority of ours will not be playing in 2027.
"Accountability" is a word coaches often use when explaining to players why they've been dropped. Mapusua has strong and, more to the point, very well-paid shoulders, to take responsibility for the failed campaign. He also must be held accountable.
This team had more than nine weeks together in preparation for this tournament. None of our past teams have had that luxury. It could have, should have been, so much better. The long-suffering, blue waves of fans deserve it.
Before the tournament started the phrase doing the rounds in rugby circles in Samoa was, "O la e experiment lava Vaovasa," which translates to "Vaovasa is still experimenting."
Sadly, with all the puzzling decisions and unanswered questions, it seems the experimentation continued during the tournament, when it should have been over long before.
Meanwhile the dreams, hopes, prayers and aspirations of a rugby-mad nation, and thousands in the diaspora, went up in smoke, yet again, for another four, more years.
Loveni S. Enari is a Samoan journalist who’s spent most of his life in Spain as an English teacher, rugby coach, catering manager, journalist and father. He hails from the villages of Vaiala, Safune, Lepa, Nofoali’i and Wairoa.
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