By: Grant Fisken
The names of Tana Umaga, Mils Muliaina, Va’aiga Tuigamala and Frank Bunce are just a few of the many players with Samoan backgrounds to star for the New Zealand rugby union team over the years. So it is amazing to consider it took until July 2015 for the All Blacks to play their first match in Samoa.
Given the previous results when the two countries have met (five New Zealand wins by an aggregate score of 308-56), it could easily have been assumed this match was going to be all about the occasion rather than the possibility of a competitive fixture. Their most recent meeting in New Plymouth in 2008 had ended in a 101-14 victory for New Zealand. However, Samoa were not going to roll over on their own Apia Park turf and gave the All Blacks a stern test before going down to a 25-16 defeat, their best result against the country they gained independence from in 1962.
The Pacific Island nations have long had to contend with their best players being lured to join teams in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and even Japan by bigger contracts, at the expense of the national team. Yet the enormity of this match was shown in how many of those players returned to play New Zealand, some at their own expense and risk to their personal contracts. Toulouse’s Census Johnston is likely to face disciplinary action from his club after travelling to play in the match despite retiring from international rugby when he signed a new contract in April.
It was not just a special day for the Samoa players, but for the entire population as they were given a half-day national holiday to coincide with the match. The All Blacks were given a hero’s welcome when they arrived at Faleolo International Airport, and Apia Park was filled to its 8,000 capacity as both teams performed their respective war dances, the haka versus the siva tau. The first half was a tight affair with all points coming from the boot, with Dan Carter kicking four penalties to Tusi Pusi’s one.
The All Blacks finally made the breakthrough early in the second half when George Moala latched on to Carter’s kick to go over. To the credit of the hosts they refused to back down and scored a try of their own through Alafoti Faosiliva, and went into the final 10 minutes trailing by only six points. New Zealand finally made the game safe in the 74th minute with Carter’s sixth penalty to secure a nine-point victory.
New Zealand captain Richie McCaw gave Samoa high praise after the game describing it as, “what true test match rugby is all about”. It will be interesting to see if Samoa can recreate that level of performance consistently at the World Cup in England. They are 10/11 to reach the quarterfinal with likely pool rivals for second place Scotland at 5/6. Those countries will meet in Newcastle on 10 October in the final round of Pool B matches.