In the wake of Japan's jaw dropping victory over South Africa last Saturday, the Rugby World Cup suddenly feels more open than most had been expecting. Pool A with England, Wales and Australia was always going to grab the most headlines, but few would have expected much drama to come from South Africa's Pool B. In fact, it probably looked the most straightforward of the groups by a nose, just ahead of New Zealand's Pool C. In any event, it's now shaping up to be a potential four-horse race.
Since last Saturday's feel good factor in Brighton, Scotland have subsequently rained on the underdog-parade by defeating the Japanese, although this was probably expected given the fixture scheduling. Scotland were fresh and playing their first game, whereas their opponents were still likely experiencing some emotional hangover. What to make of this result is unclear, but at least four of the teams are capable of beating any of the others, and that's brilliant for the competition.
Pool B is due back in action this coming Saturday when South Africa take on the Samoans in a game of surprising significance. Despite having already lost this year to both Argentina and Japan, the Springboks will still be favourites, but probably not strong favourites. Under greater than normal pressure, against larger than normal opponents, it wont to be easy.
The last time both sides met was in 2013 when the Springboks comfortably won 56-23 but this result is a bit misleading in terms of what can be expected this weekend. Second tier nations in the world of rugby typically only have a week of preparation before tours and that seriously blunts their prospects. In world cup years however, this barrier is removed and preparation time is aplenty, giving them the ability to compete. The last game under such circumstances was in 2011 and South Africa only scraped to a 13-5 victory on that occasion. That performance wasn't a surprise either, as only a few months earlier, Samoa had actually beaten Australia 32-23 in Sydney.
In the lead up to this world cup, they nearly went one better when they hosted New Zealand in Apia, but eventually lost 25-16. That was a day when Dan Carter needed to kick twenty points to mitigate for the physical beating that New Zealand took for much of that game.
It's no secret that Samoans love the physical side of rugby, but they are also hugely gifted footballers and often the magic-sparks at the club sides, unlocking defences that remain shut to others. In my time playing with London Irish our game plan revolved mostly around getting the ball to one of our Samoan contingent, preferably in space, and then following him to await the offload which nearly always came. It was so simplistic, and probably too much so, but remarkably effective because the guys were just so skilful and strong.
More recently, Northampton have been similarly enamoured with Samoans and often have three in their match day squad, relying on them to provide the keys to prize open defences.
For all their valour and quality within the squad, the Samoans still nonetheless compete at a disadvantage owing to their lack of resources. Since they can't pay their players like their tier one counterparts, players are often put in the position of having to choose between club contracts and playing for their country. Given the financial disparity of the two choices, many are essentially forced into international retirement because their European clubs refuse to pay for their time away. Of course the contracts and discussions are never worded as such, but the outcome is exactly that. Yet despite all their reasons for grievance, I can't remember any of my Samoan teammates ever complaining about this. They were just content to be in a position to play rugby professionally and got on with life. That meant scoring tries and putting in huge tackles in games, and mostly taking it easy in training during the week. Yet even with their casual midweek attitude, they were still often the best players on the training paddock, but were just mindful not to injure any of their own squad. Knowing what matters most and what matters least is key, and these guys seem to have it wired into them at a young age.
This was born out this week when the Samoan squad visited and sang for the former Springbok Joost van der Westhuizen who is suffering from motor neurone disease. This won't have gone unnoticed by the South Africans either and there'll be no lack of respect, or risk of underestimating Samoa. Indeed, the Springbok captain Jean de Villiers knows well the difficulty of playing against the Tuilagi family from his encounters with Manu when playing England. All going well, on Saturday he may well have the pleasure of playing against two of his brothers, Sanele and Alesana.
In the likely event that South Africa manage to get their world cup belatedly underway, the Samoans will regroup and turn their focus towards Japan and Scotland. For the rest of us, we will be left to wonder what would happen if Samoa were ever able to compete on a level playing field.