Bolstered by quality recruits courtesy of World Rugby’s eligibility rule changes, Manu Samoa harbour genuine ambitions of making the knockout rounds of the World Cup for the first time since 1999.
Being pooled with England, Argentina and Japan in the opening stage would make that look a tall order had the Samoans not just taken Ireland down to the wire in a warm-up played in the Bayonne rain at the end of August.
“They’re a good side, Samoa,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said after his top-ranked team rallied from halftime deficit to win with a late try.
“They’re going to shock a few teams. Because it isn’t just the traditional things they’re good at. They were powerful et cetera, but they were fit and had a great set piece. A lot of good things were happening for them.”
Samoa were not invited to the first World Cup in 1987 but have played every edition since and taken great pride in bruising the egos, and bodies, of better-ranked sides.
They reached the first knockout phase in 1991, 1995 and 1999 but have had diminishing returns in the last five editions, bowing out in 2019 with a solitary win over Russia from their four pool matches.
As Farrell suggested, Samoa have always produced wrecking-ball runners and big defensive hitters by the dozen but the 2021 tweak to the eligibility rules have added playmaking finesse.
Former All Blacks Steven Luatua and Charlie Faumuina might more fit the traditional Samoan mould but in Lima Sopoaga, who played 16 times for New Zealand, and Christian Leali’ifano, a 26-cap Wallaby, they now have top-class options at flyhalf.
Add to that the physicality of forwards Fritz Lee, Taleni Seu, Chris Vui and Paul Alo-Emile and Samoa can be confident of building a solid platform against any of their Pool D rivals.
Seilala Mapusua has had longer than previous Samoa coaches to prepare his team and their Pacific Nations Cup campaign showed signs of real promise, not least the 24-22 win over pool rivals and 2019 World Cup quarter-finalists Japan in Sapporo.
Their match against Ireland was only their second against tier one opposition since the last World Cup – they were thrashed by Italy in the other last November – but they also beat a Barbarians side in Brive in August.
A slow start cost them dearly against Fiji in their solitary Pacific Nations Cup defeat in Apia in July and they will need to avoid a repeat when they open their campaign against Chile in Bordeaux on 16 September.