Samoa host Germany in Apia on Saturday with the weight of a nation on their shoulders.
The Pacific Islanders face a home-and-away play-off against Germany for a place in Pool A at Rugby World Cup 2019 alongside Ireland, Scotland, hosts Japan and Russia having competed in every tournament since their maiden appearance in 1991.
If they want to maintain that proud record, however, they must overcome a downturn in form. Since the last Rugby World Cup in England, Samoa have won just two of their 15 tests and welcome Germany to Apia on a run of nine successive defeats.
The most recent of these came earlier this month when Fuimaono Titimaea Tafua’s side warmed up for this qualifier with defeats to hosts Fiji and Tonga in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup in Suva.
Germany coach Pablo Lemoine knows his side will still going into the match as underdogs, sitting 12 places below Samoa in 29th in the World Rugby Rankings going into the first leg.
“It will be a really tough game,” he said.
Key to play-off
“Everyone has put a lot of pressure on those guys (Samoa) because the World Cup is really important for the country. We’re here to learn and to try to play the best game we can, but we know it’s a 160-minute game, it’s not 80.
“The ideal would be to score points and put pressure on Samoa. To wait to see what happens when they come back to Germany, because it will be difficult for them too.
Die #DRVRugbyXV hat dem #Samoa College in #Apia einen Besuch abgestattet, Bälle überreicht und mit den Schülerinnen und Schülern #Rugby gespielt. Tolle Geste, die bei allen Beteiligten sehr gut ankam und viel Freude bereitete. #DRVRugby#RWC2019#goodhands#rugbybuildscharacterpic.twitter.com/MveDZbNqx0— DRVRugby (@DRVRugby) June 26, 2018
“For that reason I think the key of the series is the first game, the game on Saturday.”
Ahead of that meeting at Apia Park, Tafua has made seven personnel changes to the Samoa side that lost 28-18 to Tonga two weeks ago. The vastly experienced Logovi'i Mulipola, Motu Matu'u and Paul Alo-Emile return to the front row, while Joshua Tyrell joins captain Chris Vui in the second row and veteran number eight Ofisa Treviranus forms the back row alongside Piula Faasalele and Jack Lam.
In the backs Melani Matavao is given the nod at scrum-half, Paul Perez switches to outside-centre and Ed Fidow is named on the right wing.
Germany arrived in Apia this week without Ayron Schramm, who picked up a facial injury in their 16-13 European play-off victory over Portugal (pictured), and his place in the back row has been taken by Marcel Henn. Second-row Timo Vollenkemper also comes into the forward pack, while Sebastian Ferreira switches to number eight.
A backline that failed to fire against Portugal a fortnight ago has been reinforced, with Christopher Hilsenbeck starting at fly-half, Steffen Liebig named at outside-centre, Nikolay Klewinghaus included on the left wing and Maxine Oltmann moved to full-back.
A long-term programme
Following a week in which their footballing counterparts were knocked out of their World Cup in Russia, Lemoine reiterated that Germany would not have made the 38-hour trip to Samoa had they not believed they could progress to next year’s tournament in Japan.
“There is hope, because we can find many mistakes they (Samoa) have made but we still know it will be a really difficult game,” he said.
This tie does not represent the last chance for Samoa and Germany to qualify for Japan 2019, however, with the loser following the return leg on 14 July heading into the four-team global repechage tournament in November.
And from Lemoine there is an understanding that his team can only grow with continued exposure to more competitive teams.
“We know Samoa is one of the best tier two countries, and we know the potential they’ve got,” he said. “But we have to learn about that level and try to play our best.
“After that, the games are always the games, you never know what might happen. But the idea is to work really hard in the first game, really hard.
“We will prepare a good programme and a good project for the future, because German rugby doesn’t start and finish on Saturday. There has to be an idea for a long-term programme.”