By Jonathan Barrett
APIA, Samoa (Reuters) – There was a time when Alofaaga Sao would bundle 32 coconuts together to use for weight training at his home on the remote palm-fringed Samoan island of Savai’i.
It was rough and ready but it did the trick and now the powerful 21-year-old prop has graduated to doing 140kg squats at a gym in the capital Apia as he targets a place in the Manu Samoa squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
“Your core body needs to be strong for scrumming, and for doing lineouts, lifting people, [for] good tackles, and carry forward,” Sao told Reuters during a training session in Apia ahead of the Pacific Nations Cup, which starts later this month.
“I want to run through tackles.”
Sao was barely known outside of his village earlier this year but muscled his way into World Cup contention with strong performances for the Savai’i Vikings in Samoa’s Super 9 domestic competition.
He was one of eight new caps included for the Pacific Nations Cup and, even if 21 is still young for a test prop, he has already been ear-marked as a long-term prospect.
His raw power has been harnessed by coaches at an academy in Apia on the island of Upolu, located south-east of his home in Savai’i, started by former Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger.
Schwalger told Reuters that young players were finding a pathway to international rugby through the programme, which is designed to train children and identify talent that would otherwise be missed.
“These opportunities are huge for their families, their churches and their villages as well,” said Schwalger, who represented his country at three World Cups.
“The coaches believe that [Sao] is going to be a future for Manu Samoa for the next 10 years.”
The chance to play rugby at a higher level drew Sao to the capital from Savai’i, which is a largely agricultural island where cocoa and coconut products are produced and has a population of about 50,000.
“For me, this is my job,” said Sao, who is nicknamed “love” by his team-mates; a direct English translation of his shortened first name, Alofa.
“This is how I help my family.”
While Samoa and other Pasifika nations produce large quantities of talented players that bolster union and league clubs around the world, professionalism has harmed the progress of their own national teams.
Samoa was one of the world’s most dangerous teams in the 1990s when they twice made World Cup quarter-finals.
They have not made the last eight since the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, the tournament that marked the end of a century of amateurism in the sport.
Tonga have never advanced beyond the pool stages, while Fiji made the quarter-finals twice, in the inaugural event in 1987 and again in 2007.
Schwalger said that while there is a natural fit between the physical attributes of Samoans and contact sport, a lack of facilities has meant many talented young players had to move overseas to develop their skills.
The players go on to represent their adopted homelands — New Zealand and Australia have long benefited and more recently France and England are getting in on the act — and are no longer eligible to represent their country of birth.
The young players at the academy appear to have mixed allegiances when asked which team they support, with many citing regional power New Zealand as either their preferred team or team they most want to beat.
“I’m really hoping that Samoa beats the All Blacks,” said nine-year-old Emanuel Jonathan Va’ai, who is training at the academy.
To have the chance of such a showdown in this year’s World Cup quarter-finals, Samoa would first need to navigate a path through Pool A, which also includes Ireland, Scotland, Russia and host nation Japan.
The Samoans have bucked considerable odds before, however, and while beating the three-times world champion All Blacks would be the biggest upset in the history of the sport, it is clear no victory would be sweeter for the island nation.
“I want my country to be in the history books of just a little country like us defeating probably the best team in the world,” said Va’ai.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in SAMOA; Additional reporting by Jill Gralow; editing by Greg Stutchbury/Nick Mulvenney)