Thursday 14 December 2017

Samoa's main man Mapusua primeed to claim 'big scalp'

David Kelly

David Kelly

An 11-year-old sits cross-legged on the living-room floor enthralled by the flickering images from afar. The young Seilala Mapusua is agog as the TV screen relates the tale of one of rugby's greatest upsets.

It is just after half-time in the 1991 World Cup clash between Western Samoa and Wales. To'o Vaega kicks the ball ahead. Welsh scrum-half Robert Jones chases him down. Vaega wins the foot race. But Jones wins the more important race, touching the ball down first. Except the referee doesn't think so. No TMO here. Western Samoa get the try. They breach the line for a sensational victory. And a young Samoan kid in exile attains a hero for life.

These days, about one in 10 Samoans play rugby. It is their passion. Devised as a pursuit to offset paganism by the Marist orders in 1920, their impact on the pitch is often less than Christian.

Despite that 1991 success against Wales as Western Samoa -- the Welsh manager wondered wryly what may have happened had they played the rest of them -- the self-styled "Irish of the Pacific" have struggled to maintain that impact. Probably less than one in 10 Dubliners could name a single Samoan player, yet their players' influence in world rugby is wildly disproportionate to the country's status within the game.


Chief amongst them is London Irish centre Mapusua, one of the English Premiership's leading exponents and heir to a proud tradition of Samoan representative players, from Lam to Tuigamala, Bachop to Paramore.

Ironically, given all the convenient finger-pointing at New Zealand for supposed poaching of Pacific Islanders, Mapusua is one of a large number of Samoans who declared for the native land after falling short of All Black status. Mapusua was born in Moto'otua -- the hospital district of Samoa's capital Apia -- and his father was a Methodist preacher who was sent to Wellington in New Zealand to partake in community work when Mapusua was four.

He went to Wesley College, a noted Auckland rugby academy. But even as an infant he had become intimate with the sport.

"I still have memories of playing rugby in the islands as an infant," he recalled. "Everyone played, whatever their age and with whatever they could use as a ball: a shoe, perhaps, or a stick. If the stick happened to break, the boy holding the bigger bit was the boy in possession. It was physical, too."

At Wesley, a certain Jonah Lomu was three years ahead of him; he, too, would attain a certain element of idol status for a wide-eyed youngster, now immersed in a culture where rugby had become more than just a religion. It was now a profession. He soared through the junior ranks, becoming a member of the All Blacks team that won the World Junior Championship in Wales in 1999 before graduating to the highly successful U-21s.

Although he had been enchanted by his native country during the 1991 World Cup, Mapusua dreamed of becoming an All Black but, as he formed a queue behind Tana Umaga, Aaron Mauger and Ma'a Nonu, he soon realised it was a forlorn hope.

After leaving school, he linked up with the Otago NPC team in 2000 and played four seasons of Super 12/14 rugby with the region's Highlanders before hooking up with London Irish in 2006.

By that stage, he had dismissed his All Blacks hopes, debuting for the Pacific Islands in 2004 before fulfilling his World Cup dreams with his native country in 2007, albeit this time it was Samoa on the end of a shock as they slipped to ignominious defeat against Tonga.

He has become a cornerstone of the London Irish club -- along with fellow Samoans George Stowers, Sailosi Tagicakibau and Elvis Seveali'i -- and earned the Premiership's Players' Player award two seasons ago.

"Samoans love the physical contact aspect of sport and are very competitive people," Mapusua said, before the Exiles' stunning defeat of Munster in October's Heineken Cup clash.

"We enjoy the atmosphere of team sports because we are a very family orientated culture and you don't find many Samoans taking part in individual sports like cycling and tennis. The team ethics are really important with shared goals and everyone backing each other up and we do thrive in those environments.

"Team sports allow us to shine without standing out -- if that makes sense."

His childhood dreams of following in the footsteps of his 1991 compatriots now overshadow all else in his career but, even though his side are ranked 11th in the world, they remain one of the world's rugby outposts, despite the nation's rapturous love for the sport.

"I think rugby in our country would be different if they had the high performance units in place," he said of the perennial frustrations of being one of the less influential founder IRB members.


"I'm not saying they would be able to beat the All Blacks, but they would at least be able to compete at a higher level. If they managed to do that in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga I believe rugby would truly become a global sport. It wouldn't just be the same old faces you see at the latter stages of the World Cup every four years."

This month is a significant one for the Samoans, today's clash against Brian O'Driscoll not just a huge personal battle but a wider crusade to assert the country's authority after severe questioning from the IRB about the Union's distribution of their funds.

"It's high time we claimed a big scalp again," Mapusua said this week. "We have the ability. Those of us who play in the Premiership and in France know that week in, week out, we are on a level with anybody else.

"It would be a huge boost if we could beat one of the big teams again. It's definitely time we took another step forward. This month is absolutely vital to our World Cup cause it will be our only time together before the Pacific Championship next summer which leads straight into the World Cup."

Mapusua (30) likes nothing better than to indulge in a sing-song and he has been known to don a guitar and belt out a few favourites. Whether his standard, "Wonderful Tonight", will get an airing in the team's Burlington Hotel base this evening is doubtful.

But respect is just as important as an unlikely result. "We want to get away from that label of just being great entertainers who appear on the highlights reel. We want to be in the top 10 and help develop Samoan rugby for the future to keep the talent coming."

Mapusua, now a Samoan hero in his own right, is leading that charge.

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