Just what makes Samoa such a factory of rugby talent? Look no further than the Tuilagis, who hail from the village of Fogapoa on Samoa’s biggest island, Savai’i. Incredibly, this family has produced five brothers who have played for the national team, Manu Samoa. Eldest brother Fereti was the first to get a professional contract with the Leicester Tigers. His younger brothers Henry, Alesana, Anitelea and Vavae soon followed him to the UK with the youngest, fittingly named Manu, going on to play for England. The Tuilagi brothers all have two things in common—size and power, attributes that can take a player far in world rugby.
As brutal as it is beautiful to watch, rugby union is a physically demanding sport well suited to physically gifted Samoans. Finding talent in Samoa isn’t hard. There are more than 12,000 registered players in the Pacific island nation of nearly 200,000 people. However, retaining that talent has been an uphill battle.
Samoa’s small economy and isolation from top professional competitions mean the best players head overseas to further their careers. And many don’t return. Samoa is powerless to counter the big money and opportunities offered in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and Japan, where most of its players end up. Consequently, the country has never reached its true potential.
The great irony is there were almost as many Samoans playing for foreign nations as for Samoa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. That trend will continue. While they are powerless to stop the player drain, it is the homegrown talent that local officials are desperate to hold on to.
‘The Samoa Rugby Union (SRU) cannot control what happens overseas, but we can control what happens in Samoa,’ says CEO Faleomavaega Vincent Fepuleai, whose arrival a year ago signaled a new direction for Samoan rugby after a period of financial mismanagement. Local rugby development has long been hindered by the lack of resources and money, but poor planning is also to blame.
‘Grassroots rugby suffers a lot because of inconsistency,’ says lifelong Manu Samoa supporter Ropati Mualia. ‘We have good programs one year and then gone the next. There’s no real forward-thinking. It’s sad because we have so much untapped talent that needs to be properly nurtured.’
Finlay MacLeod noticed the disparities as soon as he arrived from Scotland to take up a role as a volunteer rugby coordinator. ‘I was shocked to find out there was no youth rugby here as it is the bread and butter of most rugby nations,’ he says. ‘Samoan kids wouldn’t have played competitive rugby until the age of 16. This emphasized another large gap in their grassroots infrastructure.’
The SRU has begun to address these problems through its five-year strategic plan (2015-2020) which identifies grassroots development as a key area in raising the standard of domestic rugby.
This year the union opened a new rugby academy (SRUA) to run alongside a new skills-based initiative called Get Into Rugby. Some 3,700 boys and girls aged 5 to 14 have so far taken part in the program, which teaches basic skills such as catching and passing. Both initiatives complement the SRU’s High Performance Unit already serving the country’s elite players. There is also a privately run Rugby Academy Samoa (RAS) run by some former Manu Samoa players.
The two academies operate under different philosophies but claim to be working together, not in competition. The SRUA wants to develop its players to a level where they can represent Samoa via the SRU pathway, whereas the RAS—perhaps controversially—focuses on finding opportunities overseas. ‘We have to face the fact that we don’t have the resources in terms of coaching and facilities to develop our boys to the top level,’ says RAS cofounder, Mahonri Schwalger, who has played at union level in New Zealand as well as for his national team.
Although the SRU is investing WST$600,000, or 10 percent of its annual budget, into development in 2016, SRU’s Development Coordinator, Shalom Senara, admits that clubs and schools are still severely under-resourced.
‘The challenges we face are mainly regarding resources, such as gear,’ he explains. ‘The cost of travel is also a major reason why many schools can’t make tournaments. Only three clubs in the whole of Samoa have a scrum machine.’
Upskilling local coaches is also a priority, with a new provincial competition being introduced in 2017. ‘The level of coaching is very poor and reflects on the quality of rugby being played,’ Senara adds.
Samoa Events manager Seti Afoa agrees: ‘Having skillful coaches and mentors is important and that is lacking. There is a lot of supply in talent, but to take that talent to the next level requires skillful management of the players.’
Media commentator Sita Leota wants the SRU to cast its net wider. ‘Players from the town area do well, but it is the players from the rural areas who struggle,’ she says. ‘We also need capacity-building programs for administrators looking after rugby in the outer villages.’
With two academies in operation and a renewed focus at the grassroots level from the national body, the future of rugby in Samoa seems to be in good hands. But the verdict is out until the fruits of these efforts translate into positive results on the rugby field, and more Samoan players like the Tuilagi brothers emerge on the world stage.
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