Dangerous Samoans demand respect – but Ireland dare not lose
SAMOA'S victory over Ireland in 1996 has been referenced as a salutatory lesson for Joe Schmidt's new team. So too their win over Wales this time last year.
The Samoans' higher placing in the official IRB world rankings is also being used to dampen down expectations ahead of the opening game of Schmidt's tenure as Ireland head coach.
Ireland's 40-25 loss at Lansdowne Road 17 years ago was embarrassing for the hosts; it was Samoa's only victory in a 10-game tour that featured just one international – against Ireland.
Eight years previously Ireland won 49-22 at the same venue. In all, Ireland and Samoa have played five times, and that 1996 victory was the Pacific islanders' only triumph.
Seventh in the world rankings, the visitors are a burgeoning force, but they are officially still a Tier Two nation. Any suggestion that Ireland will not beat them on Saturday should be dismissed, even though Samoa are an excellent side, with an undoubted elan to complement their traditional physical game.
Ireland should win. Ireland must win. They are, however, unlikely to enjoy a 27 or 26-point victory as they boasted in 2001 and 2003.
It is with a great deal of expectation that Schmidt goes into his first Test. He has rightly been talking up Samoa's many qualities, making particular reference to their physicality while also highlighting that they have added artistry to their traditional strengths in recent years.
This Samoa team will also be one of the best prepared to ever play Ireland. They had a three-day camp together in England last week and will have the benefit of a full week of preparation behind them come Saturday evening.
The Samoans to watch
* Toulouse prop Census Johnston is regarded as one of the strongest tightheads in European club rugby.
* Hurricanes flanker Faifili Levave is expected to make his debut against Ireland and is a committed, strong ball-running loose-forward whose defence is excellent.
* Northampton Saints duo Kahn Fotuali'i and George Pisi are two of the eight European-based players in the squad and will be worthy of attention.
A growing number of their players are coming to attention in the northern hemisphere, including James Johnston (Saracens), Logovi'i Mulipola (Leicester Tigers), Kahn Fotuali'i (Northampton), Census Johnston (Toulouse) and Paul Williams (Stade Francais).
During the summer when an admittedly weakened Ireland were limping past the United States (15-12), Samoa were recording impressive victories over Scotland (27-17) and Italy (39-10) before putting in a credible performance in a 56-23 loss to South Africa.
Samoa certainly deserve respect and have a better win percentage than Ireland.
They have won 94 of the 192 internationals they have played since taking their first steps in the Test arena in 1924 (against Fiji), lost 93 and drawn five for a win percentage of 50.26.
Ireland's winning percentage is a less healthy 44.34 but that's from 628 internationals (234 wins), usually against more formidable opposition.
Schmidt's men should certainly beat Samoa, but the November series will not be deemed a success if they are the only side Ireland beat. It is unlikely a first success against New Zealand will be enjoyed, but Australia are certainly beatable.
Two wins from three, while avoiding the sort of humiliation experienced in Hamilton (60-0) in June last year, must be the aim.
Sport has a habit of making a mockery of predictions, though, and what is worrying – aside from Samoa's undeniable quality – is that some of Ireland's marquee players are a little undercooked.
As a team ranked above Ireland and given the obvious quality of their individuals, Schmidt will be wary of the visitors.
But if the feel-good factor engendered by the appointment of the new coach and the wave of optimism that greeted the appointment is to be maintained, this is a game Ireland dare not lose.