Samoa's Brian To'o (L)
London (AFP) - Samoa’s historic march to the final of the Rugby League World Cup has solid foundations in a star-studded squad of hardened NRL and State of Origin regulars who have opted to play for their country of heritage rather than powerhouses such as Australia and New Zealand.
The Pacific Island team notched a dramatic 27-26 victory over tournament hosts England in Saturday’s second semi-final thanks to Stephen Crichton’s golden-point field goal in extra time at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
That set them up for a final next weekend against reigning champions Australia in Manchester.
Remarkably, the Samoans become just the fifth team to reach a Cup final (after Australia, England/Great Britain, New Zealand and France) and are the first new country to make it since 1988.
It’s a far cry from the 2017 World Cup, when Samoa did not win a game and were thumped 46-0 by Australia.
Drop-goal maestro Crichton is just one State of Origin representative to have plumped for Samoa over Australia, along with Brian To’o, Jarome Luai, Junior Paulo, Josh Papali’i and Jaydn Su’a, plus rising star Joseph Suaali’i.
Suaali’i of the Sydney Roosters, still just 19 years old, is arguably the highest-profile defector, the full-back starring for Samoa as the last line of defence and omnipresent in attack to send his already sky-high NRL stock soaring even further.
With an ever-rising contingent of players in the NRL who identify as being of Pasifika or Maori heritage – estimated at 45 percent – Samoa’s success could easily shake up the future of international rugby league as younger players opt to play for their ancestral nation knowing the team could be competitive on the world stage.
Skipper Paulo was one of seven Samoans to battle it out in the NRL Grand Final two weeks before the World Cup started and coach Matt Parish was quick to single out the Paramatta Eels prop and Luai, man-of-the-match against England, for praise.
“I take my hat off to a large number of this squad,” Parish said. “Especially these two – they had a Grand Final about seven weeks ago.
“We still ask these guys for effort to turn up and play world-class games and we are going up against a world-class team next week (in the final against Australia).”
- Coming to fruition -
Samoa's players celebrate
Penrith Panthers playmaker Luai, born and raised in Sydney, opted for humility over highlighting the importance of the stacked number of heritage players.
“I think 1 to 17 is a big help, whoever contributed… even the boys who didn’t play as well,” said the stand-off, whose twinkle feet and ability to offload caused havoc among the English defence.
“Our preparation has been top class and that’s where we are right now. Everyone has their role to play within this side.”
Speaking of how the option of competing for Samoa came about, Luai said: “It started at Penrith for me.
“We made a commitment to each other that when the right time came we’d play for Samoa.
“It’s all come to fruition right now and we’ve done something really special together.”
Auckland-born Paulo added: “We’re definitely proud of where we come from, our heritage.
“Although it was a sacrifice turning your back on those tier-one nations like Australia and New Zealand, it’s about the social impact on what we can provide for the next generation.”
- Journey continues -
Parish said it was incredible “to put Samoa in a World Cup final, a tiny little dot in the Pacific”, adding that the presence of heritage players “shows that the rules are right in international footy” about switching allegiances.
“There needs to be a structured calendar for international footy,” he added. “Everyone wants to see Samoa and Tonga play other nations, Fiji and Papua New Guniea, to give them opportunities to grow.”
“There have been some imbalanced scorelines in this competition but it’s been a great comp,” he said in reference to some heavy one-sided results, with Jamaica and Greece making their World Cup debuts.
“The only way you start is by starting somewhere. It wasn’t that long ago that Samoa were being flogged by 60 points, too.”
Skipper Paulo had the final word on next week’s final at Manchester’s Old Trafford.
“It’s probably the biggest game in Samoa’s history,” he said. “What we’ve done to get where we are, it’s kind of overwhelming, but the journey continues for us.”