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Why Samoan captain Jack lam had to take a risk to play at the World Cup


Country first: Samoa’s Jack Lam (centre) says he wasn’t tempted to take money from clubs if it meant he had to sit out the World Cup
Country first: Samoa’s Jack Lam (centre) says he wasn’t tempted to take money from clubs if it meant he had to sit out the World Cup
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Family - the word used by Samoa captain Jack Lam to describe the bond between a group that will take the field for the last time together in Fukuoka today.

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With the coaching ticket out of contract, and a host of senior players expecting to be pulling on the blue jersey for a final time against Ireland, this is the end of the road for a proud side that at various points have felt stung by perceived unfair treatment at this World Cup.

Scheduling, inconsistent refereeing, key players banned and, of course, the infamous crooked-feed call that gave Japan the platform for their crucial, 84th-minute try on Sunday have all raised the ire of coach Steve Jackson, but his players have remained a tightly-knit unit.

"We've been together for about eight weeks so this has pretty much been our family for the last two months," said captain Jack Lam yesterday as lively singing drifted up the stairs from their team room.

"Yeah, the word 'family' pretty much sums it up. We have had our ups and downs as any family would but we have managed to problem-solve everything within our family and we're still tight."

Like many families, chat inevitably turns to its prodigal sons. Cynically placed in an impossible position, Samoa have more than most.

Injuries notwithstanding, at this quadrennial peak of the international game, not even those inside the camp would proffer an argument that this is the best 31 players they have to offer.

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The likes of Bundee Aki, who has been included by Joe Schmidt in today's opposition, and England's Manu Tuilagi are just two prominent stars who could have been in their number but chose a different path. However the real issue is not those who are here to represent a different nation but those who aren't here at all. As is so often the case for Samoa, the root issue is money.

TV telethons were required to raise money for training camps this summer where wages equated to approximately £50 a day and some players were still left to pay their own airfare.

Even for their rare tussles with northern hemisphere sides, the contrast between rugby's haves and have nots remains stark. In 2017, it was revealed that England players were raking in £22,000 a head for a November international in Twickenham, Samoa as the visiting opposition just £650.

It is against this backdrop that players have essentially been forced to put a price on representing their country.

World Rugby's regulation 9 - that players must be released by their club for Test duty, including the World Cup - has long been flouted with Samoa and Tonga both confirming before this tournament that presumed members of their squads had made themselves unavailable at the behest of clubs threatening to revoke contracts offered should the players miss time to represent their country.

There is little doubt that the seemingly shambolic nature of the Samoan union has been a huge factor in the side's slide- before that England game they declared themselves bankrupt, a fact disputed by World Rugby - but the problem has been exacerbated by the blatant opportunism of European clubs, especially in a World Cup season when the Top 14 will be seven rounds deep before the pool stages have even been concluded.

The brilliant Joe Tekori unexpectedly retired from Test rugby just two weeks before the World Cup to "focus on the club", while Jackson told a TVNZ programme recently that one player arrived into camp ahead of the Pacific Nations Cup this summer but departed again within two hours of being offered a European contract.

When wondering why a team that reached the quarter-finals of this competition in its first two attempts entered this edition ranked 16th in the world, this is as good a place to start as any.

"It's pretty tough," said former Bristol back-row Lam, one of four unattached players in the squad unsure what the future holds.

"I said it before that it was a no-brainer for me, that those contracts in France I could have taken had their condition that I had turn down the World Cup and (the opportunity) to play for Samoa in the future as well.

"I just couldn't do that. I see myself too much in the jersey and it just didn't cross my mind.

"It was a bit of a risk coming in, especially for my family, but my missus and family are all behind my decision. I'm not too sure what's next at the moment. One or two things but, yeah, I'll wait until after.

"I chose not to take that path but others have chosen to. We can't pick some players. Other guys have families as well obviously and they might have seen that as a risk coming to the World Cup but hopefully that will change in the future and we won't have these kinds of problems."

If there is one benefit to this most invidious of situations, then the Samoans know few squads will have sacrificed more to take their place at the tournament.

"It has been a challenge for us selecting a squad," admitted the team's assistant coach Alistair Rodgers.

"But the great thing about it was we actually knew that we had a group that really wanted to be here. They sacrificed a lot to be here and you could build a good foundation with that and we believe we have.

"As Jack said, I think it has to change for the future of the Pacific Island teams.

"We'll see where that goes and where that leads to."

For Samoa, a country that has historically brought so much not only to this tournament but this game, the uneven playing field continues to take more than it gives.

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