The Good: Samoa are coming into this tournament with a very strong squad containing much international experience. Indeed, this squad contains four members of the New Zealand side that beat Australia in the 2005 Tri-Nations Final. Their pack in particular will be exciting to watch, with a combination of both hard-hitting enforcers and also ball-players, and the idea of Ali Lauitiiti and David Solomona in the same team is one to really get the juices flowing. A combination of exciting players and experienced heads has proven to be successful in the past, and Samoa are definitely a team to watch out for.
The Bad: They have great forwards and great threequarters, but the bit in between could pose a problem. Nigel Vagana has filled in admirably as a stand-off, but he is still not a natural no.6, and Ben Roberts will need to be at the top of his game. Samoa had to take the long route to this tournament, with a failure to gain automatic qualification from the Pacific group meaning they had to go through the repechage. This might indicate a slight inability to cope with being the favourites, which according to most bookies Samoa are in this group. By packing their squad with so many risk-taking forwards, they also leave themselves open to a meltdown of some sort.
The Ugly: Samoa have pushed the eligibility rules to their limits with their player selection, considering how much of their side have already played for New Zealand. Although they do have a sprinkling of home-grown talent in the squad, Toa Samoa have been used fairly frequently by critics of the competition as an example of the flip-flop nature of international rules and eligibility criteria. It’s up to them to shove this down their critics’ throats with a successful campaign.
The Key: Samoa should be pretty well suited to playing off-the-cuff, exciting running rugby, and that should be great for the spectator. However, there are days where that just won’t seem to work, and there have to be question marks over Samoa’s ability to play a tighter, more conservative game plan. If Samoa find themselves able to dictate the terms of the match, then look for them to go far. If they are unable to impose themselves, be wary of their game falling apart.
The Coach: John Ackland has a reputation as an astute judge of talent, and is credited with bringing Sonny Bill Williams and Roy Asotasi to the Canterbury Bulldogs. Now an Assistant Coach at the New Zealand Warriors, he has plenty of talent at his disposal, and will be aware of the Samoan way of playing the game that isn’t a million miles away from that of the Warriors. He needs to find a way to channel the more aggressive, swashbuckling instincts of this side into a positive force.
Star Man: Ali Lauitiiti has for the majority of his career had a reputation as one of the most exciting forwards in the game. Not afraid to offload, Lauitiiti has somewhat curbed his kamikaze style in the last few seasons, but in turn has also become less of a liability and more consistent. Nonetheless, he is still an attacking threat that has to be thought about, and if he’s not making the holes himself, he can still be creating gaps due to people marking him. If Lautiiti is on form, then Samoa should prove to be an entertaining side.
Wild Card: Francis Meli has proven to be an enigma at St Helens. He clearly has a knack for scoring, which could prove useful in this group, and his rampaging, powerful style will lend aggression to the Samoan threequarters to match their forwards. However, it’s been fairly noticeable that opposition teams have started kicking towards him a lot more, and his failure to diffuse bombs sent his way has resulted in tries in two consecutive Grand Finals. If he is able to prove solid in defence, it will help Samoa use him more purposefully in attack.
Young Gun: Harrison Hansen has had a very good season with the Wigan Warriors and has consolidated his position as a fixture in the Warriors’ starting team.A defensive machine who lead the tackle count in Super League last year (a whole 48 tackles ahead of his nearest rival), he also seems to know his way to the try-line as well. He could very well be the solidifying, no-nonsense influence that Samoa need in the middle of the park, and a sensible attitude from Hansen could give his more illustrious counterparts license to release their inhibitions.
In Conclusion… Samoa appear to be slight favourites in this group, and I suspect that is due to the level of experience that they can call on. With several proven international performers in their side, they do look like a unit to be worried about. They even have strength in depth in the forwards (particularly the back row), which is a commodity not to be sneered at in the two smaller groups. The main question is whether they have the midfield and the kicking game to dictate play, rather than relying on reaction and improvisation.
Squad: George Carmont (Wigan Warriors), Dave Faiumu (Huddersfield Giants), Harrison Hansen (Wigan Warriors), Ali Lauitiiti (Leeds Rhinos), Tuaalagi Lepupa (unattached), Kylie Leuluai (Leeds Rhinos), Wayne McDade (Auckland Vulcans), Francis Meli (St Helens), Joseph Paulo (Penrith Panthers), Frank Puletua (Penrith Panthers), Tony Puletua (Penrith Panthers), Ben Roberts (Canterbury Bulldogs), Tangi Ropati (East Tigers), Smith Samau (Gold Coast Titans), Lagi Setu (St George Illawarra Dragons), Terrence Seuseu (Cronulla Sharks), David Solomona (Bradford Bulls), Willie Talau (St Helens), Alby Talipeau (unattached), Misi Taulapapa (Cronulla Sharks), Ben Te’o (Wests Tigers), Tupu Ulufale (unattached), Matt Utai (Canterbury Bulldogs), Nigel Vagana (South Sydney Rabbitohs).