Dumped out of Rugby World Cup after heavy losses to South Africa and Japan, Samoa is a country in mourning. An alarming slide down the world rankings -- from eighth position two years ago to an all-time low of 15th -- has brought further disappointment and criticism.
Rugby is more than a game in the Pacific. It is a source of pride and identity. For a people who have enjoyed worldwide respect and recognition from the inspired performances of Manu Samoa over the years, this has truly been a campaign to forget.
From the outside, an encouraging showing in 2011 suggested Samoan rugby was on the rise. That feeling was confirmed when Samoa came close to beating the All Blacks in Apia earlier this year. Come September, people dreamed of bigger and better things. Olympic Sevens re-allegiance loopholes and hundreds of Samoans now plying their trade around the world as professional rugby players meant the selection pool was bigger and better than ever. With longer preparatory time, better rest periods between matches and a somewhat easier pool, the 2015 side were highly fancied to kick on and make a first quarterfinal since 1991. How then did things go so badly wrong for our proud rugby nation?
This week Stephen Betham rightly admitted his part in the side's failure. As head coach you live and die by your calls and matchday selection, he says, was solely his responsibility. His choice to leave out standout back row players Jack Lam, Alafoti Fa'osiliva and Maurie Fa'asavalu in a must-win game was ludicrous. Betham must also shoulder the blame for the lack of any cohesive game plan displayed throughout the tournament. His gamble to select a handful of injured players in his 31-man squad and rest them during the Pacific Nations Cup while every other side was developing combinations didn't pay off. Neither did his insistence on playing people out of position, a common theme during the Betham reign.
Credit to the man, though, he has been the first to admit he is out of his depth. Having forged a good reputation as a sevens coach leading Samoa to World Series glory in 2009, it is sad Betham's contribution to Samoan rugby will be remembered for this year's shambolic World Cup outing. As we all know though, sevens and XVs are totally different beasts with distinct tactics and skill sets required. But if Betham's shortcomings are so obvious the bigger question is left begging, who appointed him and why?
Normally when a team's poor performance is scrutinised, you needn't look past the players and coaching setup for answers. In Samoa's case, though, it would be naïve to believe the buck stops there. Our problems stem from a time long before Stephen Betham's days. Many would say the writing has been on the wall since as far back as 2004 when the Samoan government forcibly assumed control of the Samoan Rugby Union (SRU) from Fay Richwhite -- the Swiss-based New Zealand merchant bankers Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite -- who had successfully funded and guided the team through the professional era since 1995. Replaced by a mix of local politicians, the SRU's star, which had risen dramatically between 1991 and 2003, began to fade.
Under the guidance of Samoa's Prime Minister Tuilaepa Malielegaoi, the results in the 2007 World Cup reflected that administration. "Depressing and lame" one newspaper put it. The positive showing in 2011 came despite claims missing money, dirty politics and hidden agendas, and was largely thanks to the excellent work of 'technical advisors' Tom Coventry and Brian McClean who came to Samoa at the insistence and expense of the International Rugby Board (now World Rugby). That duo alongside the SRU's Wayne Schuster, managed to keep player's heads in the game in spite of the off-field problems, an act Betham & Co. haven't been able to replicate.
Four years on, those same problems continue to hinder us. Since 2011 a number of player-driven initiatives aimed at cleaning up the SRU of corruption and mismanagement have been attempted. On returning to Samoa after the 2011 World Cup, captain Mahonri Schwalger and senior players approached Prime Minister Malielegaoi with a list of recommendations aimed at revolutionising Samoan rugby, among those less political interference and more experienced management. Schwalger's goodwill was met with harsh resistance and he and others were unceremoniously dropped.
At Malielegaoi's demand a new management team were installed with Betham and team manager Sami Leota at the head. A group hand picked to uphold the tainted administration, beat down any defiance and enforce the Prime Ministers distorted interpretation of the Samoan culture upon us, including his famous comparison of players to foolish children.
In November 2014, things again got out of hand when we threatened to strike against England at Twickenham. While the players were successful in our request for a standardised player welfare agreement, our demand for key resignations including that of the Pacific's World Rugby Representative Lefau Harry Schuster failed. And so the dismal story of rugby being thrown about like a political ragdoll continues.
The road forward for Samoa is long and hard. My gut feeling is that without a cultural revolution within the organisation and a total separation of politics and sport things will only continue to get worse for Samoan rugby before they get better. If success is to be obtained and Samoa is ever to fulfil its true potential, performance culture needs to be prioritised over political agenda, personal gain and the hierarchical Samoan culture. The SRU need to embrace the experience of their overseas-based players and coaches rather than feeling threatened by them. In that respect, lessons need to be learned from neighbouring Fiji who have flourished under the likes of Ben Ryan and John McKee.
Since the pools were announced three years ago, this weekend's clash against Scotland at St James' Park has been dubbed a 'crunch match', the winner expected to progress through to the quarterfinal. Embarrassingly, the only thing Samoa can do this Saturday is restore some pride. And boy do we need to.