DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 17: The Samoan team perform their haka during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup Quarter Final match between Australia and Samoa at Darwin Stadium on November 17, 2017 in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

For at least a few years now, it has been apparent that the Samoan national rugby league side was building towards something special in the (postponed) 2021 Rugby League World Cup.

The increased visibility of players with Samoan heritage at the top levels of the NRL especially was an encouraging sign that Samoa might emulate the remarkable international rise of Tonga – a theme which has dominated international rugby league since the 2017 World Cup.

In particular, the growth in stature of potential Samoan players such as Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Brian To’o – coincidentally all at current NRL champions Penrith – has been obvious to anyone with even a cursory interest in the NRL.

For the overall sake of the international game, it was hoped that these players, and others like them whose heritage allowed them a similar choice of nation, would turn out for Samoa (despite the overtures they and others have received from Tier 1 nations such as Australia and New Zealand, for whom many also qualify under the current eligibility rules).

Sadly, it now appears that the enormous potential of Samoa - which will next be tested with the opening game of the World Cup against England at Newcastle’s St James Park ground on 15 October 2022 – is unlikely to be realised.

Two reasons for this seem apparent from outside the tent of the Samoan camp.

One is the continued dissatisfaction that has been voiced by a number of potential Samoan players with the current Samoan coach, Matt Parish.

To directly compare Samoan performance to that of Tonga over the last five years or so is perhaps a little unfair given the remarkable contributions of the likes of Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo to the Tongan cause, but it is also unavoidable given the historic grudges between these teams and nations of shared Polynesian roots.

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 04: Andrew Fifita of Tonga in action during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup match between Samoa and Tonga at Waikato Stadium on November 4, 2017 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Despite a fairly strong 2014 Four Nations tournament, in which Samoa genuinely pushed both England and New Zealand in the preliminary rounds, Samoa has not elevated its game to the stratospheric heights reached by Tonga in nearly reaching the World Cup Final of 2017 (when only a late Fifita no-try prevented Tonga from sneaking past England in the epic World Cup semi-final played in Auckland).

At least some commentators (and players) have attributed this relative lack of success directly to the Samoan coach.

While some of the noise around Parish has been generated by other outside parties interested in the coaching position themselves, there remains some doubt that Parish can adequately fulfil the coaching role at the World Cup given his relationship with at least some of the likely players.

It may well be that Samoa would be better off biting the bullet now and appointing a well-known, proven coach at international level for the World Cup to now be played in October and November of this year. This is particularly so if players make the decision not to play for Samoa in the tournament because they do not wish to play under Parish as coach.

The second reason that Samoa’s massive potential seems unlikely to be fulfilled at the World Cup is the continued pressure faced by its eligible players to commit to other Tier 1 nations for which they are also eligible. The cultural and physical movement of Polynesian peoples around Oceania over the last fifty years in particular has resulted in a very large number of excellent Polynesian rugby league players with dual- or multi-national eligibility.

Many of these players were born or raised in Australia or New Zealand but their families maintain strong filial ties to the Pacific nations. The difficulty for such players in determining exactly which rugby league nation to play for at a World Cup is unambiguous.
It has, however, been the very commitment of such players to the smaller rugby league nations of, for example, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, that has been the key to the overall raising of the international standard of those teams.

If players make the decision to travel the usually better-paid route of a Tier 1 nation, this unintentionally increases the strength of the Tier 1 nations and reduces the competitiveness of the so-called Tier 2 nations, thus widening the gap between the likes of Australia and New Zealand and the rest of the rugby league world. (Pay parity between nations has as yet seemingly eluded international rugby league.)

In this context, the recent decisions of players such as Brian To’o and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to commit to Australia over Samoa are not only disappointing for the overall international game, but fly directly in the face of the recent trend for the likes of Fifita and Taumalolo to commit to the smaller nation of Tonga over Australia and New Zealand respectively.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - JULY 16: Tino Fa'asuamaleaui of the Titans runs the ball during the round 18 NRL match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Parramatta Eels at Cbus Super Stadium, on July 16, 2021, in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

If the decisions of To’o and Fa’asuamaleaui not to play for Samoa are partly due to the coaching issue, then Samoa would be better placed to resolve that issue now and allow the new coaching team to maximise their time in the role for the sake of player retention and overall preparation.

A possible alternative is that potential Samoan players (such as Luai) declare their eligibility for Samoa now, in what would also amount to a significant show of support for the current coach. This would allow Samoa to prepare more cohesively for the end of year World Cup and improve its chances of performing above what is a rapidly fading expectation.

Irrespective of which course of action is adopted, it should be done now, or the failure to secure stability in the coaching role and among potential eligible players, threatens to derail what might be a truly spectacular and historic World Cup bid from this tiny island nation.

There is little doubt that a fully committed Samoa, retaining all or most of its eligible players, has the capacity to make a major impact in this year’s World Cup. Exactly which version of Samoa we see at that tournament is yet to be determined.