Lighthearted atmosphere can’t hide Samoa’s serious intent
No sign of typhoon but Ireland could still be hit hard as Samoans have nothing to lose
South African referee Jaco Peyer gives a yellow card to Samoa’s flanker TJ Ioane during the Pool A match between Japan and Samoa at the City of Toyota Stadium last Saturday. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images
The World Cup has become extremely serious everywhere else. Not down Fukuoka way. Tuipola Evan Charlton stood before a room of largely Irish journalists – the others being a Japanese lady and French man – to announce the Samoa team that faces Ireland on Saturday morning.
Charlton is the media manager. Born in Auckland of Welsh and Samoan parentage, he’s a showman at heart. After introducing head coach Steve Jackson and Perpignan flanker Piula Fa’asalele, there is dramatic hesitation in his voice.
“Can’t remember your club, bro,” Charlton whispers (into the microphone).
Filo Paulo, until very recently a London Irish lock, whispers back (into the microphone): “Free agent, bro.”
“Ah. To Steve’s right is Filo Paulo, who is a free agent.”
When the laughter dies down it registers just how important this game, and this platform, is for the future livelihoods of so many Samoan players who sacrificed the financial security of their families to feature at this tournament.
Paulo is still only 31 but, like many teammates come Sunday morning, he is unemployed.
“It’s great exposure for some of the boys,” says the fearsome-looking Fa’asalele. “We have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, but a lot to play for.”
Charlton is smarter than he lets on. “So Steve, to get the ball rolling with a question: In Fukuoka, gee, it is pretty hot weather, looks like it will be typhoon-free Saturday night, so what’s the feeling like in camp heading into this grand finale against Ireland [pronounced Our-land]?”
“Nice question,” smiles the usually no-nonsense Jackson. “As you can see we are a couple of shades darker. It has been pretty warm outside.”
Both squads have spent down time flinging frisbee on Palm Beach before turning to match preparation.
“We have nothing to lose,” Jackson continues. “It’s the last time this group will be together. We are still playing for pride. I don’t think the game is going to be won on penalties so you’ll see both teams playing expansively and Ireland, what with not knowing the outcome of [Scotland versus Japan] on Sunday, they will need to score tries.
“We want to knock over one of the top teams in the world – we are not here to make up the numbers,” Jackson warns. “We will throw the ball around, make it a spectacle and hopefully come out on the right side of the ledger.”
Tim Nanai-Williams has shaken off a concussive blow sustained in controversial circumstances against Japan – when he ran into James Moore – to return at fullback in a backline Ireland will find difficult to crack open.
Where’s the game gone in terms of physicality? I know we talk about player safety but it is starting to go the other way now
Abrasive tackling will be a constant feature on Saturday. Jackson is still smarting from the yellow card TJ Ioane received for smashing Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima (“I know it was late but it was shoulder to chest”), never mind the double suspensions for high shots on Russia captain Vasya Artemyev.
“A couple of players have been sent off in the last few days for high shots, and the mitigating circumstances was the player dropping height into contact in both instances. [World Rugby] could have made it quite clear at the start of the tournament how far a player can drop, and that would have set an example. They obviously haven’t, and we’ve all seen at this World Cup how inconsistent the panels have been.
“Joe Schmidt asked a question at one of our coaches’ meetings and he was right, too: ‘How many concussions come from head height [tackles]?’ There wasn’t any answer. There are more concussions coming from guys going low and hitting the knees.”
In one way Samoa is the ideal preparation for the physicality of South Africa or New Zealand in the quarter-final. In another way they are the nightmare opposition.
“I mean, [Ioane] hit him in the chest,” Jackson adds. “Where’s the game gone in terms of physicality? I know we talk about player safety but it is starting to go the other way now.
“Referees are too scared to referee the way they should. I would hate to see this World Cup come down to the team that can keep the most players on the field.”
Charlton wraps up the gathering with, “Can I have a round of applause for the panel?”