Let the games begin

In a perfect world the Springboks would be sunning themselves in the south of France, fine-tuning a few of the more cerebral moves cooked up by the coaching team and ingratiating themselves with the locals. After all, we are just one week away from the beginning of the Rugby World Cup 2007.

But this is far from a perfect world and, instead, the Boks flew home from their brief tour of Ireland and Scotland for a four-day bout of forelock-tugging with some of their stakeholders. It concluded with a function at a Johannesburg casino—a fitting end, perhaps, to two months of gambling on the part of Springbok management.

Thus far most of coach Jake White’s gambles have been shrewd.
He bet that his superiors and the South African public would forgive him if he ditched the Tri-Nations in an attempt to win the World Cup. He bet that the inclusion of a mere six players of colour in a squad of 30 would be acceptable.

He bet that three warm-up games of varying degrees of difficulty would blow the cobwebs off of players who have been on months of enforced furlough. And he bet that not too many of them would fall over ahead of the opening fixture in France.

A good job, then, that White’s lucky numbers keep coming up, because the croupier’s shift is about to end and luck won’t do any more. Some skill is now required because the first opponent the Springboks face, on September 9 in Paris, will be Samoa.

Be sure the Samoa side easily dealt with by the Boks in Luke Watson’s one and only Test match at Ellis Park in June will not be the same side that runs out at the Stade de France.

Samoa have played in four previous World Cups—that’s one more than South Africa—and they have been thorns in the flesh of every major union they have played.

It began in Europe in 1991 when they beat Wales 16-13 in Cardiff. That was the first time the northern hemisphere rugby public experienced the trademark bone-shaking tackling of the Samoans.

Wales were not a great side at the time, though, and the real shock came on a wet Wednesday in Pontypool when Samoa fought Australia to a standstill. Michael Lynagh kicked three penalties for Australia, while Samoan scrumhalf Matthew Vaea missed three relatively simple ones. Australia won 9-3 and went on to win the tournament, but this was arguably their toughest match.

Samoa were captained in those days by a man mountain by the name of Peter Fatialofa, “Fats” to his friends. Fatialofa lived in Auckland and listed his occupation as “piano mover”. The distinction in most rugby teams is often between the piano movers (the forwards) and the piano players (the backs), but such was the natural size of most of the backs that the distinction was frequently blurred with Samoa.

In 1991 Frank Bunce was unknown outside of Auckland, but his performances in the blue jersey of his native land led to him being rushed with unseemly haste into the All Black set-up and he played for New Zealand at the 1995 tournament.

Samoa made the quarterfinals again in 1995, going down 42-14 against South Africa at Ellis Park. They left their mark on the eventual champions. Ruben Kruger (shoulder), Mark Andrews (ribs) and Kobus Wiese (knee) all felt the fury of the Samoan tackling, but the worst injury of the lot turned out to be Andre Joubert’s.

Joubert broke his hand attempting to defend himself against Samoan fullback Mike Umaga, the elder brother of future All Black captain Tana. Joubert’s space-age recovery technique, which involved sitting for hours in a decompression tank, has been back in the news recently. Another Bok with French Huguenot antecedents, Jean de Villiers, has been using it to speed up his recovery from his rib injury.

In 1999 Samoa lost against Scotland in a play-off for the quarterfinal, but in pool play they beat Wales again, 38-31, at the Millennium Stadium. And in 2003 they again came close to embarrassing the eventual champions, leading England 16-13 at halftime before going down 35-22.

It was this performance that convinced some critics South Africa would not reach the quarterfinals, the Springboks having lost 25-6 against England earlier in pool play. Yet, on the day the Boks met Samoa at Ballymore in Brisbane, they hammered them 60-10 with a performance of pace and verve that promised far more than it eventually delivered.

So it is clear Samoa are capable of two moods on a rugby field: Hot and cold. When they are hot they can score tries from anywhere, but when they are cold they retreat within themselves and emerge only to offer a stiff-arm or spear tackle.

When Samoa meet South Africa in Paris the result should not be in doubt, although we thought the same about the Connacht fixture. All that the coach will be worrying about is the anticipated physical fall-out. Let’s hope he didn’t use up all of Dame Fortune’s favours at Montecasino.

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