Sept 4 (Reuters) - Almost a quarter of a century ago, in the pool rounds of the 1991 rugby World Cup, Western Samoa pulled off one of rugby’s biggest upsets when they beat the once-mighty Wales at Cardiff Arms Park.
It was a result that shook rugby’s established world order to the core, offering a first-hand look at the awesome, largely untapped potential of the Pacific Islanders as well as the decline of Wales, one of the sport’s traditional powers.
The Welsh became the butt of English humour, with one line doing the rounds suggesting they were lucky they didn’t play the whole of Samoa, which they, and everyone else, now do.
But history has shown that Samoa’s win in 1991 was not about weak opponents, it was about their own arrival on the world stage. The Samoans were not even afforded an invitation to the inaugural World Cup on their doorstep in New Zealand in 1987 but have been a big part of every tournament since, reaching the quarter-finals in 1991 and 1995, the last World Cup played by amateurs.
The era of professionalism has not been kind to the national teams from the Pacific Islands. Unable to match the salaries on offer from clubs in Europe, New Zealand and Australia, many of their best players have been lured away from their homeland, then switched nationalities.
That familiarity has contributed to the element of surprise being long gone, with Samoa having built an impressive CV of wins over other top-tier nations, including Australia and Ireland.
In July, they pushed the reigning World Cup holders New Zealand, losing 25-16, but prompting All Blacks captain Richie McCaw to predict great things from Samoa at the World Cup.
“With form like that you will get better and I know you will be a force to be reckoned with in what’s ahead. You have a pretty special team and I‘m sure you will do well,” McCaw said.
Samoa will head into the eighth World Cup full of optimism and familiar with the challenges they face with a dozen of their squad members already play professionally in England.
London Irish flanker Ofisa Treviranus was named captain of the 31-man squad, which comprises 18 forwards and 13 backs, making it back in time after hurting his neck playing against the All Blacks.
Head coach Stephen Betham named veteran wing Alesana Tuilagi, who featured at the last two World Cup and now plays for Newcastle, as his vice-captain, illustrating his heavy reliance on experience.
Samoa have genuine hopes of making knockout stages after being drawn in Pool B with South Africa, Scotland, Japan and the United States, with their final game against Scotland in Newcastle likely to be key.
They finished runner-up in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup, despite missing several key players who are now available for the World Cup squad and, as ever, will improve through the tournament as they enjoy a rare lengthy period of good preparation and training.
“We know that the hopes and dreams of all our Samoan people are in this team, and that is a heavy burden, but one made so much easier to bear knowing that the people of Samoa and Samoans all around the world are firmly behind this team,” team manager Namulauulu Sami Leota said.
“Every time we travel offshore, we are touched by the love and the support this team attracts, so I want to reassure everyone that our hopes and our dreams are the same. We dare to dream the unthinkable.”
Editing by Mitch Phillips