By Ian Gilbert
History has a habit of repeating itself, and for the Samoa women's coach Peter Fatialofa the challenge facing his team is reminiscent of his own playing career.
Fatialofa began his international career in 1988, when Samoa – then Western Samoa – were largely unheralded on the international stage. Within three years they shocked the rugby world by beating Wales, with Fatialofa as captain, at the Rugby World Cup.
Fast forward to 2013 and the man known universally as “Fats” is masterminding the bid by the Samoa women’s team to qualify for Women's Rugby World Cup 2014.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices (made by the players). For me it’s like rewinding the clock to 1988. We were in the same situation - not many resources, trying to find players,” explained Fatialofa.
The Manusina, as the women's team are known, will shortly travel to Madrid for the Women's Rugby World Cup 2014 qualifier, where they will take on Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden for a chance to compete in the next global gathering.
Support from the International Rugby Board has enabled the Samoans to be involved and Fatialofa is keen the long trip proves worthwhile.
“The IRB have given us a lifeline. We’re working on a shoestring. We’ll give it everything we can give and more.”
Samoa head for Spain as something of an unknown quantity; their last international was a qualifier for WRWC 2010 against Australia in August 2009. Most of the squad play their club rugby in New Zealand, where the season has just started after the summer lay-off.
“We have most of the senior players (available) from 2009, young players and fast players and hard players. Put that together and who knows. We will always play like Islanders, whether male or female.
“Samoans love to run with the ball and tackle hard. Just quietly, these girls do the same.”
Surprisingly, given he was a cornerstone of Samoa’s pack and that of the all-conquering Auckland team, Fatialofa isn’t obsessed with scrum training.
“I teach them to be technically sound and safe. The set pieces are not something to dwell on; we don’t want to take them on upfront. The Samoan style is - we’re not a forward-dominated side, we’re everywhere. We’re a mobile forward pack, we’ve got some really good loosies, mobile locks.”
Fatialofa expects the European sides to be battle-hardened after a season of competition, but the Samoans have been training assiduously and a recent hit-out gave Fatialofa some indication of his best XV.
'Hammer and tongs'
“We’re going to do a job that probably a lot of people think we can’t do. NZ hasn’t played any rugby for five months; we’ve been going hammer and tongs in training, played against New Zealand Samoa. It gave me a positive feeling – there was no quarter given.”
The squad – comprising one based in Australia, a handful in Samoa and the bulk in New Zealand – leave for Spain on 18 April and will begin their campaign against an Italian side that beat France and Scotland in this year's Women's Six Nations.
Fatialofa has been gleaning what he can about Samoa’s opponents from YouTube and knows they’ll be cohesive - as he puts it, “they’ve been playing since Timbuktu”.
“We’re not a big side – we’ll find it tough against Italy, Netherlands and Sweden.”
The Italians will be a good yardstick as to Samoa’s likely chances of progressing.
“The Italians will play like the men – pretty strong at set pieces. We’re wary, but at the same time, we’re not coming out to make up the numbers.”
If there is a good omen, it comes from the coach’s own playing career. During a stellar career for Samoa, Fatialofa played Italy once and won - at Rugby World Cup 1995.
As “Fats” puts it: “We’re not going there to sightsee.”