Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Ireland will have to stand up to Samoan aggression

United: The Samoans have climbed to seventh in the IRB rankings
United: The Samoans have climbed to seventh in the IRB rankings

There was a time, not so long ago, when a Dublin date with the Samoans – or Western Samoa as they were known up until 1997 – would have been viewed a bit of a banker for a home win.

No longer, however.

This weekend's visitors have climbed to a heady seventh place in the International Rugby Board's rankings, ahead of three of the Six Nations contenders – Ireland, Scotland and Italy – and Argentina who are now fully-fledged members of the southern Hemisphere's Investec Championship in which they compete alongside New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

Examination of the Samoan squad reveals nine players who are earning their living in England's Aviva Premiership, nine others lining out in France's Top 14, a trio of Super Rugby participants, two from New Zealand's ITM Cup (formerly the national Provincial League), two more from the France's ProD2 (the tier immediately below the Top 14), a pair plying their trade in Japan and of course Filo Paulo, the Cardiff Blues lock with whom those of us who follow RaboDirect PRO12 football are familiar.

Now those are pretty impressive credentials and while there can be no disputing that those players are far-flung throughout the rugby world, it cannot be argued that they fail to gel because of that. Just ask Wales who lost 26-19 when they hosted Samoa 12 months ago.

The previous season's Grand Slam champions were outscored by three tries to one on that occasion, with Fa'atoina Autagavaia, George Pisi and Johnny Leota touching down for the tourists and the other Pisi sibling, Tusi, adding a conversion and three penalties.

Indeed, had the latter's goal-kicking been better, the margin of victory would have been a lot more than seven points.

Take note, incidentally, that each of Samoa's four scorers in that Millennium Stadium win is on board for selection against Ireland. Wales could not handle the Samoans' physicality, some of which was beyond the boundary of what is legal. But much to the chagrin of the hosts, French referee Pascal Gauzère gave the tourists the benefit of the doubt and they certainly made the most of his generous interpretation of their intentions.

Ireland will be hoping that Saturday evening's match referee, Steve Walsh, will be less lenient in dealing with Samoa's aggression. Being a southern hemisphere official, he is familiar with their style and will know what to expect.

Their aggressive approach goes far beyond what is suggested in their pre-match Siva Tau, the Samoan equivalent of the Haka.

The particularly forceful fashion in which they attempt to impose themselves on opponents was in evidence back in June when they faced the Springboks in the final of a quadrangular tournament in which Scotland and Italy were the other participants.

Note, too, that Samoa beat each of that pair – 29-17 and 39-10 respectively – en route to that Pretoria decider against the Boks, a match in which Ulster's Ruan Pienaar started at nine for the victors.

On that occasion, however, the Samoans' aggression went further than Monsieur Gauzère – the referee who had been so forgiving of them seven months earlier in Cardiff – was prepared to tolerate. As well as awarding a host of penalties against them, he red-carded left wing Alesana Tuilagi for a dreadful high tackle on South Africa's captain Jean de Villiers and sin-binned tight-head Logovi'i Mulipola. Significantly, Tuilagi was not included in the party this time.

With the other two games of their tour being against the French Barbarians and Georgia – the former a Social XV, the latter ranked 16th in the world – clearly Saturday's clash with Ireland is the big one for the Stephen Betham-coached Samoans.

Betham's opposite number, Joe Schmidt, and his players know what is coming; Samoa major on set-piece.

But they have some quality backs as well, with men of the calibre of Hurricanes centre Alapati Leiua and fellow-midfielder Pisi of Northampton, Wellington Lions' wing Sinoti Sinoti – whose CV includes stints with Castres, Hawke's Bay, Toulon, Wellington and Zebre – and Stade Francais full-back Paul Williams, who is their captain.

So an easy start for Schmidt and Ireland? Forget that – this is for real.

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