- The two nations had never met until the 1995 Rugby World Cup
- Saturday will be only their ninth encounter
- The World Cup played a crucial part in Samoa’s rise to recognition
England and Samoa will face down this Saturday in a game sure to provide fireworks. But despite the long history of rugby in each country, it’s far from a long-established fixture.
The two nations have only ever met on eight occasions – and it was not until 1995 that they faced each other for the first time.
That match took place at the Rugby World Cup, with Will Carling’s men clinching a pool-stage win in Durban.
And it was the World Cup – particularly the 1991 and 1995 editions – that proved the most crucial factor in Samoa’s relatively recent rise to recognition in the rugby world.
'A 7am kick-off and palm tree on halfway'
Rugby holds a special place in Samoan culture, and the history of the sport there goes back to the early twentieth century.
Known as Western Samoa until 1997, the country was annexed by New Zealand at the beginning of the First World War.
An inevitable consequence of colonial rule was the introduction of rugby. And as the sport became popular with Samoans, a governing body was formed in 1924.
Samoa’s first ever international match took place the same year. Fiji were the opponents in a game that kicked off at 7 a.m. to allow the Samoans to get to work.
It was almost certainly the first international rugby match to feature a palm tree on the halfway line, though the Fijians didn’t seem to mind – they triumphed by six points to nil.
International matches would prove irregular occurrences over the coming decades. Samoa did not play away from home until 1955, and it wasn’t until 1986 that they took on a side other than Fiji or Tonga.
'A military coup and a World Cup debut'
It would be the Rugby World Cup that would give them the exposure they deserved, though they were not invited to the first tournament in 1987.
They did almost receive a last-minute call when, due to a military coup, the International Board were unable to get hold of the Fiji Rugby Union to confirm they’d be playing. But an enterprising Fijian journalist managed to get the message out, and the Samoans stayed at home.
At the 1991 World Cup, eight spots were made available through qualification, and Samoa grabbed their chance. Not only did they qualify, but they shocked the world by beating Wales in their opening match – arguably the most famous upset in international rugby union history.
“Western Samoa? Good job we didn’t play the whole of Samoa,” went the joke among the Welsh fans.
The rugby world now took notice. Samoa’s first ever match against New Zealand took place in 1993, and Wales were beaten again in 1994.
And while there was still no match against England, the pool draw for the 1995 Rugby World Cup meant it wouldn’t be long until the two would meet.
“This is our World Cup final"
England were on a high going into the tournament in South Africa, having just won a Five Nations grand slam. Samoa, on the other hand, were beaten 60-8 in their warm-up match against the Springboks.
But this was the Rugby World Cup. And this was Western Samoa.
While England limped to narrow wins against Italy and Argentina, the much-less-fancied Samoans blew away the Italians by 42 points to 18 before winning a whirlwind match against the Pumas.
It meant that when England and Samoa came to play each other, the pressure was off – both were already through to the quarter-finals.
Not that legendary All Blacks winger and son of Samoa Bryan Williams – part of the Western Samoan coaching team – was taking it lightly.
“This is our World Cup final,” he said before the match. “If we go home having beaten England, the founders of the game, it will be history for us whatever happens in the quarter-finals.”“We’re not worried. They eat food – just like us”
The Samoans were by no means overawed by the prospect of facing England. Captain Peter Fatialofa put it particularly simply when he said, “We’re not worried. They eat food – just like us.”
England chose to rest several players. In came Gloucester lock Richard West for his first cap, while the likes of Rob Andrew and Brian Moore sat on the bench.
If the first-choice line-up had been struggling for fluency, the so-called second string hit their stride early. A 24-year-old Neil Back scored just 90 seconds into the match. By half-time, Rory Underwood’s 44th England try and Jon Callard’s kicking had put the men in white into a 21-0 lead.
Samoa came storming back. Substitute fly-half Fata Sini made an immediate impact, cutting through the English defence twice for a brace of tries. Suddenly the islanders found themselves within seven points.
But England found a new gear. A penalty try and a second for Underwood secured a 44-22 victory and top spot in Pool B.
'Lomu-inspired New Zealand'
England would eventually be knocked out in the semis by a Lomu-inspired New Zealand, while Samoa were defeated in the quarter-finals by eventual champions South Africa.
A first visit to Twickenham came soon after for Samoa, but it brought another loss. And five encounters later – including another 44-22 defeat at the 2007 Rugby World Cup – they’re still searching for their first win against England.
Could it come on Saturday? They’d have to upset the odds – but then it wouldn’t be the first time Samoa have done that.