Relocating his family for a new rugby life in Japan is hampering former All Black Lima Sopoaga’s attempt to launch his international career with Samoa and is set to keep him out of the Pacific Nations Cup clash with Fiji in Apia on Saturday.
Sopoaga, who has been playing for Lyon in the Top 14, and his family are currently waiting in France for their visas to allow their move to Japan where he has signed for Koto Blue Sharks. Sopoaga, who has committed himself to Samoa, has been forced to train on his own while the rest of the squad has been preparing for the PNC matches in the Islands nation.
Head coach Seilala Mapusua told RugbyPass from Apia that the visa question was the reason that the former Wasps outside half was unable to make his debut for Samoa – ironically in the 24-22 win in Japan last weekend who had Michael Leitch sent off – and that it would be a race against time if the player was to make it to Apia for the Fiji match. It now looks certain Sopoaga will make his Samoa debut against Tonga in Apia on August 5, joining fellow former All Blacks Charlie Faumuina and Steve Luatua along with ex-Wallaby Christian Leali’fano in switching countries to play in the World Cup which kicks of in September.
Samoa are in the same pool as England, Argentina, Japan and Chile and will play warm up matches next month facing a Barbarians XV coached by Samoan legend Pat Lam, the Bristol chief, in Brive and Grand Slam champions Ireland in Bayonne.
Mapusua saw Leali’fano kick the winning conversion to defeat 14 man Japan and is excited about adding Sopoaga’s skills to a squad that has won seven of the eight matches under his command and moved up to World No10 for the first time since 2015. However, Samoa now face a Fiji side that toughed out a home win against Tonga with star backs Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova making significant contributions along with Albert Tuisue, the Gloucester No8.
Mapusua said: “Lima is waiting for his visa to relocate to Japan and we were hoping he could be available for this weekend and we have been keeping him involved with training and team meeting via our comms platform and he is training in France. He is training on his own – well he better be! Lima should be available for the Tonga game.
“Like Fiji, we have a lot of boys with European experience and we have also added guys like Christian Leali’fano who kicked that winning conversion from the touchline against Japan. He is a quality human being and has been so good for our group. He is a proud Samoan and how often can you get a first in your career at 35-years-old making a new test debut. He is like a kid in candy store. Theo McFarland ( Saracens) and Jordan Taufua are on course to be available shortly.”
Fiji use the famously tough Sigatoka dunes as part of their preparations for the PNC while Samoa took to the water to build their own team spirit with the help of a 100ft rowing boat – a Fautasi – crewed by the entire squad and coaches making up 50 rowers under the command of Zita Martel, known as the “Warrior Queen” of the seas in Samoa.
Martel is a legend having become the first women to take charge of one of the racing boats and the players had to carry the 100ft long craft to the sea where their initial attempts to row saw them floundering until the Warrior Queen and her drum beating paddle sorted them out. Fautasi means “ to be build as one” and that was the theme for the Samoan squad as they learnt to stay in time. “I think we were going around I circles at the start: “ explained Mapusua.
“Zita is pretty awesome and none of us had any experience on the sea and this was the start of our journey to France and the World Cup. We needed to become a team and understand that no matter what your position in the squad we need to be all rowing in the right direction and moving to the same beat or else we won’t get anywhere. Zita gave us the beat for the stroke and banged paddle down and we went out quite a way – 5-10kms – and on the way back we found the rhythm and the boys were really into it.”
Big hitting tackles are a Samoan trademark but they could collect yellow or red cards at the World Cup, particularly with the likely introduction of a Television Match Official Bunker which means every collision will be closely examined. The system will aim to prevent players from wrongly being shown a red card and they will be sent to the sin bin instead while TMOs look at replays of the incident in question.
“Mapusua said: “ We are working really hard on our tackle technique and making sure we are aggressive within the rules and we won’t change the way we play. Physicality is part of our DNA but must make sure we are technically sound.
“Japan really came at us and we were points down early with a player on a yellow card and it was all about problem solving and it was tough playing 14 men because they changed the way they played. Our defence, which is being coached by Tana Umaga, kept them to one try and he has done some awesome work and we need to keep concentrating on those penalties.
“ It was scrappy in very humid conditions but it was a starting point for us and with the new things they are bringing in for the World Cup with the bunker and reviewing possible red card incidents nothing is going to get missed. Every play will be scrutinised and we have to be on the money all the time. To be back into the World top 10 is great and if it means we can get more sponsorship that will be awesome!
“It is a recognition of the hard work a lot of people have put in and it is motivation for us to carry on and keep improving. It is cool to be amongst the top 10 and when I started as head coach my target was to qualify for the World Cup. Playing the Barbarians will be really important because the more time we can spend on the pitch the better and Pat (Lam) was over here recently for a family reunion. He came down to our training and it was awesome to catch up with him.”
The challenge posed by Fiji will be very physical and a major test of Samoa’s new found status in the rankings and Mapusua added: “ They have players from the Dru who did really well and also high quality European guys and we are in for a hell of a game. Recently, Fiji have been the benchmark for Pacific Islands rugby and they continue to be a threat.”