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Alex Goff looks at Samoa's surprising win over Australia July 17 and wonders whether other Tier II nations can learn from it.

 



 

I wonder if we might perhaps look back on July 17, 2011 as a watershed day in the sport of rugby.

No doubt I could be overreacting (who, me?) but it’s possible.

On that day, Samoa defeated Australia in Sydney, 32-23. It was a shining light of hope for the heavily-stratified rugby landscape. Tier III teams have a tough time beating Tier II nations. And Tier II teams really have a tough time beating Tier I countries. So when such a thing does happen, we take notice.

As professional rugby expands and grows, and professional teams look for players from anywhere to help them win, rather than players only from their own country, all nations could possibly pull themselves up.

Samoa is a nation primed for such possibilities. With outstanding athletes who are seem almost to be built specifically to succeed at rugby football, and with those players playing the game from the cradle, they just need the opportunities.

Does this mean the USA can make a leap like this and upset a team like Australia, or Ireland (or even Italy)?

Well, sure, why not? I guess that’s the message. Why not?

Watching the match (which, if you missed it, can be downloaded at www.acrossthetasman.com ) I came up with eight reasons why Samoa beat Australia, and then tried to extrapolate that to an upset formula for other Tier II nations.

  1. Intensity. This is, in my opinion, the most important reason Samoa beat Australia. They won the battle of intensity. This was highlighted by a series of powerful, teeth-rattling tackles on defense, and a commitment from the forwards, especially, to clog channels 1 and 2 and not let Australia get much go-forward.

  2. Physicality. This, of course, is an offshoot of intensity. Early on Samoa won the battle at the breakdown and certainly won the point of contact. They put in legal, but scary, hits at the right time to get into the Wallabies’ heads.

  3. Ball-handling. This could go under physicality, actually. Several times early in the game Samoan players received man-and-ball passes. Every time they caught the ball and then took the hit. Tier II nations cannot afford to drop the ball, especially early. Their players must concentrate on catching the ball above all else in such situations to maintain possession and increase their opponents’ frustration levels.

  4. Physicality and refereeing. Samoa has a reputation for high tackles and no-wrap tackles. The reputation is like any reputation, deserved and not deserved at the same time. In this game, referee Marius Jonker decided to referee the game as it was happening, not Samoa’s reputation. Some borderline tackles were assessed in the moment, which is how they should be. Some were penalized. Some were not. Would that all Tier II nations were treated that way. Jonker’s approach allowed Samoa to play the game their way, and use their physicality to shock the Aussies.

  5. Continued intensity. Lots of teams start out intense against a favored opponent, but then something happens (usually they give up a dumb try) to steal the team’s mojo. Not Samoa. They continued to hit ferociously, work hard on defense, and kept pushing.

  6. Opportunism. The problem with a lot of USA teams is that players have struggled with the fear of making mistakes. Players worry about stepping out of the prescribed plan to make a big play because they don’t want to seem selfish. But sometimes the selfish thing works because it’s unexpected.

    Samoa scored an early try when Seilala Mapasua jumped on a ball that squirted out of a ruck. He might have been offside, but what he did was try something at a key moment, and it worked. He hiked the ball between his legs to winger Henry Tuilagi, who went all the way to score, showing full confidence in his ability to outpace the defense.

    Their next try came when Paul Williams charged down a kick. The third try came when Tuilagi caught a wide kick that was a little flat, decided to work with it, chipped ahead, and forced a turnover. The key element of this try, which was scored by Tusi Pisi, was that the Samoan players believed in the chance. They didn’t hesitate, and sent all personnel to win that ruck and get the ball over. There was a desperation and faith to their opportunism.

    But just as important was their opportunism on defense. They attacked loose balls, kicked them downfield, and chased. 

  7. Luck. Just about every risky pass by Samoa ended up in Samoan hands. Australia were off their game early and muffed a few chances. In addition, Australia passed up several kickable penalties to tap and go, or go for the try another way. None worked until late in the first half.

  8. Discipline. We talk about intensity and opportunism, but the shape of the Samoan defense held. Their chases on kicks were together and well populated. Their intensity stemmed from exploding in the final three feet of a tackle, not from blitzing all alone. It was like Bruce Lee’s on-inch punch – awesome power over short range. 

    This allowed the Samoa defense to plug holes and always get numbers around a ballcarrier.

 

A team like the USA or Canada can’t control whether the referee will be fair, or whether their opponents will get rattled easily. But they can take lessons from this game. Be as physical as you can for as long as you can. Do it in the context of the team. Don’t drop the ball, even if it means getting rocked. And don’t let up. Ever.