Player Voices Strong Opinions on Samoa’s Decision to Replace Head Coach after Rugby World Cup

“There’s a lot of disappointed players from the World Cup squad who are a bit confused and pissed off right now."

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By NZ Herald 4 April 2024. Former All Blacks first five-eighths Lima Sopoaga has launched a broadside at the Samoa Rugby Union’s top brass, saying the abrupt end of Seilala Mapusua’s head coaching tenure leaves a “sour taste” and international stars may now reconsider their test futures.

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Mapusua relocated his family to lead Manu Samoa for the past four years. He was contracted until the end of 2024, but was this week replaced by former Manu Samoa Captain and Chiefs hooker, Mahonri Schwalger as Samoa’s new head coach.

Lakapi Samoa made the announcement last week, clarifying that Mase had been the recommended candidate by the interview panel, appointing him for a four-year term, starting from 2024 and extending through the conclusion of the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

“This decision follows a thorough selection and recruitment process, during which
the Board convened to confirm the report and recommendations from the Selection Panel,” reads the media release.

The decision is believed to be driven by a desire for greater local control of the team, with suggestions quotas for Island based players and coaches could be introduced.

While Moana Pasifika provides a pathway for Samoa and Tonga through their Super Rugby involvement, locally Samoa has little in the way of professional rugby structures and development.

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Lima Sopoaga is a former All Black. He was 32 years old when he decided to join the Manu Samoa Rugby World Cup squad after the stand down period.

Sopoaga played 16 tests for the All Blacks before heading abroad in 2018. After serving an international stand-down he represented Samoa at last year’s World Cup alongside fellow former All Blacks Steven Luatua (32) and Charlie Faumuina (37), along with former New Zealand Super Rugby players Jordan Taufua (32), Fritz Lee (35) and Ben Lam (32).

Former Highlanders and London Irish midfielder Mapusua, who declined to comment when approached by the New Zealand Herald, was instrumental in luring those players to join Samoa’s World Cup campaign – and assembling a coaching team that featured Tana Umaga, Tom Coventry and Andrew Goodman, who is now assisting Ireland.

“Maps was a massive reason why I decided to have a crack and go back. Seeing the treatment of him has left a sour taste in my mouth,” Sopoaga told the Herald.

“There’s a bit of a group chat between a few of us boys from the World Cup who are still playing. I’m sure we’ll get on there and decide what we do.

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“There’s a lot of disappointed players from the World Cup squad who are a bit confused and pissed off right now.

“You probably lose the trust of some of those international players – guys who really bought into Map’s vision and maybe don’t make themselves available now.

“They’re wondering why they would make the sacrifices. All those boys loved playing for Samoa but it now puts questions over those decisions to come back. I’m sure guys still will but you might miss out on those quality players who thought Maps was the guy. He’s a good coach, a special man, a great manager of people.

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“It’s a shame because it feels like it’s one step forward, five steps back.

had my reservations heading into the World Cup because you hear of missed payments or kit not going to the right places. I wasn’t too sure whether it was going to be professional but it exceeded all my expectations.

“Samoa can only do the best with what they’ve got. What Seilala delivered, and who he was able to bring on board, it was superb for the constraints of the small budget the team has.

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“He had a real vision and passion for trying to build Samoa rugby again and I think he was on the right path. I just wish those at the top, at board level, looked at the bigger picture.”

Samoa managed one World Cup pool victory against Chile but their largest defeat at the tournament in France was nine points against Argentina.

Sopoaga acknowledged Samoa fell short in their quest to reach the knockout stages but he took aim at the board for casting Mapusua aside.

“Disappointed is putting it kindly. That’s the PG version of my answer. It’s all too familiar of Pacific Island rugby politics.

I know results didn’t go our way but we were close to beating Ireland [17-13 defeat] before the World Cup. We were close to beating Argentina and there was one point in it against England. Unfortunately against Japan we missed our opportunities.”

Mapusua’s tenure was limited to 15 official tests – eight wins and seven losses for a 53 per cent win rate which ranks him third, behind Peter Schuster and John Boe, among Samoa’s 10 test coaches.

“With what he had he almost over delivered,” Sopoaga said.

“It needs a shake up at the top and a new direction from those leading Samoa rugby. They are disconnected from the real world in terms of high-performance sport and the way they see it. Those at board level have been there too long. They think they know better than they actually do.”

As Samoa shifts to a local focus, Sopoaga is not alone in fearing the change in strategy could spark a significant regression from the national team.

Other than their highly regarded assistant coaches at the World Cup, Samoa also recruited quality backroom staff including Chiefs analyst Al Beeton, who has since joined Scott Robertson’s All Blacks coaching team.

I’m not saying developing those on the Island is a bad thing but there’s a fine balance between moving forward and trying to progress with the times. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got,” Sopoaga said.

“There are kids out there who dream of wearing the blue and it’s a shame if that time comes and environments or systems are what they were 10 to 15 years ago.

“I can’t get my head around it but that’s Island rugby and politics at times. We’ve seen it countless times through the years.

“Maps was the guy to take Samoa forward. He had the right vision for Samoa. Maybe it was because he’s someone who understands who he is and is strong in his values and opinions, having played around the world and he therefore understands the cultural and, more importantly, high performance side, and that’s what international rugby is about.

“I definitely feel if they continued to have him at the helm you would have seen Samoa rugby change for the better.”

Samoan Rugby Union chief executive Vincent Fepulea’i did not return requests for comment.