Pacific Nation Cup 2015: Get to Know Manu Samoa
When the Eagles take on Samoa at San Jose's Avaya Stadium on Saturday, July 18, they will face a side steeped in rugby folklore
Consisting of a set of volcanic islands in the heart of the South Pacific, with a population numbering under 200,000, Samoa's primary exports may officially lie in the fish and coconut oil trades, but it's their rugby players who have put the nation on the map. They grace practically every top tier competition in world rugby, and for good reason: they have speed, strength and skill in abundance.
Historically, without a meaningful domestic or international competition in which to compete outside of the World Cup, they have had to make do with making waves every four years. As such, they have thundered into previous tournaments: famously beating Wales 13-16 in Cardiff in 1991; hammering the Italians 18-42 in South Africa four years later; and repeating their heroics against the Welsh in Cardiff in '99.
In the three editions of the World Cup since, the devoutly Christian Samoans have been no less troubling to so-called 'tier one' nations. Perhaps their finest moment came in 2003, when they gave eventual winners England an almighty scare, trailing by just a single point going into the final ten minutes.
The Samoans' penchant for big hits is epitomized by the legendary Brian Lima, who played in five World Cups and earned himself the nickname "The Chiropractor" for his bone-rearranging tackles. They may be known as "the happy people" because of their infectiously positive approach to life, but a Samoan on the rugby field is entirely different to the man off it.
Samoans were rocked by the recent death of All Black flanker Jerry Collins, a cult-like figure who was born in their capital city of Apia. His funeral was a distinctly Samoan affair, attended by a who's who of New Zealand rugby royalty. Those who carried his coffin included All Blacks Tana Umaga, Chris Masoe, Ma'a Nonu and Filo Tiatia - all fearsome players of Samoan heritage.
Sonny Bill Williams and Jerome Kaino are just two current All Blacks who fall under the category of 'Samoan New Zealander'. Incidentally, New Zealand finally recognised the nation's role in its rugby heritage when, last week, the All Blacks played an historic first Test match in Apia. The Samoans took the match to their opponents - despite the scoreline finally reading 25-16 to the visitors - outscoring them by two tries to one (including a magnificent effort from former Sevens star Alafoti Fa'osiliva).
Unsurprisingly, rugby clubs have benefited from harnessing the Samoan spirit. Tomorrow's captain, Alesana Tuilagi, gained a fearsome reputation during his eight years at Leicester Tigers and is now looking to do the same on his return to Premiership Rugby with Newcastle Falcons. Alesana was the figurehead of the famous Tuilagi dynasty - five bruising brothers who played the sport professionally - until brother Manu came along, took that mantle, and bucked the trend by choosing to represent England.
Tuilagi's opposite wing with club and country, Sinoti Sinoti, was in fiery form over the course of last season. So good they named him twice, Sinoti has bamboozled even the best defences in the Aviva Premiership this season. Two members of the Samoa pack, tighthead Anthony Perenise and blindside Jack Lam, are part of a star-studded Bristol squad which next season looks likely to finally get promoted to the English Premiership. Both moved to England from Super Rugby's Hurricanes, albeit both are at different stages of their career. The 32-year-old Perenise plays with joie de vivre, while the exciting Lam, 27, surprised many when he signed for a Championship side rather than a top-tier club.
Should they have all their players available to them at the World Cup, Samoa will prove formidable opposition. They won't have the privileges - be they financial or preparatory - afforded to the lion's share of the World Cup participants, but that's never stopped the proud Samoans from leaving their mark on the competition.
It is fortunate that the next encounter between the Eagles and Samoa will come at Brighton Community Stadium on Saturday 20th September: their first match of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Just enough time to get acquainted...