Rugby World Cup Opponent Preview: One Last Job for Samoa’s Old Guard

Four years since they faced the Italians on New Zealand's South Island, the Eagles are preparing themselves for a return to World Cup action against Samoa this Sunday.

The turf at the Brighton Community Stadium, normally the home of Brighton and Hove Albion (current leaders of English soccer's second tier), will need to be equally prepared as this weekend hosts an altogether different sort of athlete. To put it into context: Samoan forward Census Johnston is more than twice as heavy as the 147-pound Albion forward Sam Baldock, so the groundsmen might like to watch that first scrum through their fingers.

Tighthead Johnston, 34, is a late call-up to the World Cup squad in place of Logovi'i Mulipola. The loss of the dynamic Mulipola to an Achilles injury is a severe blow to the Samoans. Under the tutelage of Leicester Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill and club teammate Marcos Ayerza, Mulipola has mastered that rarest of skills: an ability to play on both sides of the scrum that would see him walk into any team at the World Cup.

That's not to say that the Samoans have lost much firepower, since bench player Johnston alone will be hard for opponents to shift, but theirs is a world-class loss in the front row. Only the grizzled French boast more seniority in their World Cup squad this year, which suggests a classic 'one last job' campaign for Samoa, spearheaded by veterans such as flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu and wing Alesana Tuilagi (35 and 34 respectively).

Fa'savalu and Tuilagi have already enjoyed their peak years, when they could irreversibly rattle their share of opponents, but both can still be called on to wreak havoc if permitted. This gnarled bunch is complemented by some comparative greenhorns in the squad.

Fullback Tim Nanai-Williams, 26, is the hottest name in Samoan rugby, which is as much to do with his sparkling talent as the fact that he was once earmarked for an All Black future. Born and raised in New Zealand, Nanai-Williams underlined his desire to play for the men in blue by representing them on the sevens circuit whilst still playing for the Chiefs in Super Rugby. In doing so, he became the first player to exploit the Olympic Sevens eligibility loophole, having already played for New Zealand Sevens.

Wing Ken Pisi will be well-known to followers of the English Premiership, in which he and his brother George (not selected for Sunday's match) have frequently dominated back play for Northampton Saints. At 26, the same age as Nanai-Williams, it bodes well for the Samoan backline come the 2019 World Cup in Japan. Samoan rugby can often be a family affair - witness the Tuilagi dynasty - and Sunday will be no different, with Pisi's older brother, starting fly-half Tusi, set to embark on breaking the Samoan points record during the tournament.

Many news stories regarding Samoa in the build-up to this World Cup (including the BBC's 'Why the cards are stacked against Samoa') have focused on player rights and welfare; so much so that there is now a tide of goodwill behind the island nation that could work in their favor. Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is also the Samoan Rugby Union chairman, which goes some way to explaining how important this sport is to a nation less than a fifth the size of Rhode Island.

Controversies aside - and they are many and well-publicised - nobody can doubt the threat the Samoans pose at the World Cup. Just ask the Welsh: twice beaten by the Polynesians at previous tournaments ('91 and '99) and pushed close in 2011. The old guard, knowing that this World Cup is their last, may inspire a devil-may-care attitude as they seek to make the quarter-finals for the first time in 20 years.