A debut to savour: Samoan joy at RWC 1991

(Other) Thursday 15 November 2012
 
A debut to savour: Samoan joy at RWC 1991
Matthew Vaea was a key figure in Samoa's shock win over Wales

In the second part of our series of retrospectives looking back at famous Rugby World Cup matches to correspond with the weekend’s action, we look back at Wales’ shock defeat to Western Samoa at Rugby World Cup 1991.

There’s nothing quite like an upset to invigorate a tournament, and there haven’t been many bigger shocks than Western Samoa’s 16-13 win over Wales at Rugby World Cup 1991.

The game spawned one of rugby’s most enduring quips – “thank heavens Wales weren’t playing the whole of Samoa” – but for one of the sport’s proudest nations, the result was no laughing matter.

Since their third-place finish at the inaugural Rugby World Cup four years earlier, Wales had faltered. Barring a Triple Crown in 1988, there had been little to savour and a number of talented players upped sticks for the professional ranks of rugby league. In 1990, they suffered a Five Nations whitewash for the first time. A year later they were only spared the same ignominious fate by a 21-21 draw with Ireland. 

Nevertheless, as the Rugby World Cup stole into sight they were expected to make short work of a Western Samoa side primed for their tournament bow at the Cardiff Arms Park. Things did not go to plan, at all.

Tough tackling

The Samoan team was packed to the gills with quality. Pat Lam, Brian Lima, Apollo Perelini and captain Peter Fatialofa were joined in the starting side by future All Blacks Frank Bunce and Stephen Bachop. As ever, they were fiercely competitive and superb athletes.

Wales carried the expectations of the crowd onto the field with them, as they always do, but they faced a wall of blue tacklers from the moment the whistle sounded. In the years following the tournament, Lima would become known as ‘The Chiropractor’ and Perelini ‘The Terminator’. The Welsh backs could tell you why.

For the hosts, the talented Mark Ring slotted in at fly half alongside Robert Jones – the British & Irish Lions’ scrum half in Australia two years earlier – while Ieuan Evans captained the team after being handed the armband in the build-up to the tournament.

Wales dominated the tight exchanges, particularly the scrum, but couldn’t launch too many meaningful attacks due to the ferocity of the Samoan defence. Writing in The Guardian some years later, Ring laid the blame squarely at the feet of their three-quarters.

“We knew the Samoans would be very physical, but I was really disappointed with our three-quarters play,” he wrote. “I was putting the ball out to our centres with time to spread it wide but they had limited vision and they just kept getting smashed by the likes of Frank Bunce. 

“They weren’t up to it. Mike Hall in particular just proved that day that he wasn’t international class as a centre. The other thing was the Samoans’ competitiveness. Our scrum dominated them, but in the loose they were formidable. They were phenomenal rugby players in that sense.”

A lucky break

Samoa bit at the start of the second half, although Wales were left with a lingering sense of resentment over the call to award a try to To’o Vaega. The centre had carved through some static defence and, noticing that Wales full back Tony Clement was out of position, kicked ahead. Video replays later showed that Jones had won the race to touch down the ball, but the try stood. 

The visitors were not finished and added another score through flanker Sila Vaifale, although it was the boot of scrum half Matthew Vaea that kept Wales at bay. Wing Arthur Jones crashed over for a Welsh try, but Ring’s radar malfunctioned and he missed several important kicks as the match rumbled to its conclusion. 

With ball in hand the fly half continued to work gaps though, and one piece of deft footwork put Evans over in the corner at the death to make it a three-point game. Time was not on their side. For the 45,000 in attendance, the final whistle was another nail in the coffin of their team’s most recent glory days. 

As with any great upset though, the opposite was true for the superb Samoans. They had stuck a pin in the map for all to see. Vaega, in particular, took something special away from that day. His son, Cardiff, is now playing provincial rugby in New Zealand for Southland.

In the immediate aftermath, Samoa held eventual champions Australia to a 9-3 defeat and beat Argentina 35-12, scoring six tries, to book a quarter final with Scotland. Wales briefly rallied, beating the Pumas 16-7, but were swept aside by the Wallabies to slip out of the tournament after the pool stages.

Conventional wisdom states that lightning doesn’t strike twice, but Lam, Lima, Vaega and Bachop had other ideas eight years later at Rugby World Cup 1999. In another classic match, the Samoan juggernaut rolled through the Millennium Stadium to the tune of a 38-31 victory. 

After last weekend’s disappointing loss to Argentina, Wales will now hope to avoid an unwanted hat-trick on Friday night. Standing in their way is a strong Samoan selection who have been feeding off the experience of one of their country’s heroes in the build-up to the game. 

Lam has been on board with the team from the planning stages of this tour and backs coach Darryl Suasua hopes that his presence will ensure a new level of belief, particularly in the wake of a convincing win over Canada in the IRB International Rugby Series last weekend.

“He brings a lot of experience, particularly around building a team and some of the culture they had back in those days, back in the ‘90s,” he said. “One of the boys was saying the other day that he was about six when he saw Pat play for the first time. Those guys look up to Pat. They look up to guys like Peter Fatialofa, To’o Vaega. That history is quite huge for them.

“It’s the same as any country. The Welsh boys playing on Friday night, they will have had their idols and their heroes. Back in ’91, when Pat was playing at the World Cup, in Samoa they had a big screen down at the park, because we don’t have the TVs there, and they had it showing. The park was packed out with people watching the game. Looking at those images of Samoan players, seeing their countrymen across the world doing amazing things, was pretty special. It would have inspired a lot of these young fellas.” 

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