Coach Tafua and the language irony

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Dear Editor,

First of all, a hearty congratulations to Fuimaono Dicky Tafua. Ia manuia tele ou faiva!

A few years ago during the Manu woes in one of its campaigns and therefore the onset of the present Manu coach malaise, Tafua was the coach then and was on the verge of being - if had not already been - replaced.

Subsequently, an editorial in the government newspaper, Savali, opined, at the time, on the urgency and necessity of “modernizing” Manu rugby. One of the so-called “lessons” suggested by the Prime Minister - via the editorial - had to do with the “language” issue, specifically the lack of English proficiency of the coaches. Here’s an excerpt:

As the Prime Minister rightly said, there are many lessons to be learned from this, well, disappointing episode. Here’s [one]:

First lesson, modern rugby is continuing to evolve and we need a coach who can keep up with the evolving joneses [sic] of professional rugby. A coach with good English and speaking proficiency who can communicate well with the players and coaching staff.

It is without doubt that the team will continue to be picked from professional ranks –– largely players born and raised overseas –– who will not have a good grasp of the Samoan language.

The editorial surmises a couple of things that may be happening at the moment and/or have changed especially with the makeup of the team as far as local versus overseas players, hence the coinciding language factor and analysis.

Coincidentally or not, this same analysis has resurfaced with the rehiring of Coach Tafua, only this time it’s the flip side. Tafua’s native language now seems a strength rather than a weakness and disadvantage, again according to the Prime Minister:

 “However, the problem with [overseas-based coaches] is they want to coach here but continue to live off-island. They wanted to come and go…. also, it’s questionable whether our players would understand their language and whether the players would heed their instructions.”

Although language proficiency of the coach(es) versus the players seems to be at the core of the dichotomy, it actually is not as consequential to the success of the team as other more important elements and aspects of sports fundamentals.

The following blog post of mine in response to the abovementioned Savali editorial was written in 2011. Though it was in defense of Coach Tafua then, the gist is still relevant today, in principle, as well as to any other coach in a similar situation.

This response is in defense of Coach Tafua (and other Samoan sports leaders) whose seeming lack of English proficiency may cost him his job and position as coach of the Manu Samoa rugby team. The insinuation and criticism are found in a Savali editorial.

First, I agree with the notion that communication is important, and even critical, in any organization - sports or otherwise. However, effective English communication alone - between coaches and players of rugby - cannot and will not win the World Cup for Manu Samoa. It takes knowledge of the game for the coach, and athletic skills and prowess of the players. Coach Tafua may lack a good command of the English language, but the assumption and inference, that such inadequacy contributes to The Manu’s problems, is not only flawed, but also demeaning to Tafua’s character as a coach and as a human being. Again in sports, a coach’s language skills should not be directly linked to the success or failure of a team.

And despite the fact that all the winners of the Rugby World Cup since its inception have been from countries whose predominant language is English, it is still neither a prerequisite nor a guarantee for excellence and/or winning games. 

The connection is more coincidental than absolute. If anything, the trend seems to favor the countries who have had a long history of playing the game and talent level, not for their English language proficiency. 

(Though history too is not necessarily a guarantee for dominance as demonstrated by the winners of the Soccer World Cup.)

Rugby has its own “language” - independent of linguistics - which makes winners of most teams. That “language” consists of “words” such as fitness, speed, strength and execution. Oftentimes, our players are found lacking in one or more of these throughout the duration of games. Coaches are often blamed for losing and praised for winning, nonetheless, a coach’s English skills are not and should not be a determinant or cause in either case.

Also, if pre/post game interviews are a concern, then have a translator or a PR/spokesperson do the interviews and let the coach ...uhmmm...coach?! I firmly believe that the team management needs to understand that the recruits who “will not have a good grasp of the Samoan language,” should make language concerns the least of their worries and make their skills of the game first and foremost in their minds.

Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of verbal interaction between the players and coach(es) during the game (unlike other team sports) so much of the communication referred to by the writer, happens during practices and meetings, hence, no apparent urgency.

Therefore the need for good English skills can be resolved and handled through translation and interpretation by an assistant coach or another staff member with English proficiency.

And by the way, I believe that Tafua has enough knowledge of English to communicate what the players need to know. It’s not like he’s defending a dissertation. Rugby, as a matter of personal opinion, after all, is more an art form than a science.

And finally, if English proficiency were a defined formula for winning rugby games, let alone the World Cup, then the American Eagles (they speak English too, you know) should certainly be among the Tier One teams; and France will have no right to be in the finals. So once again, let’s not worry about the language skills of the players and coaches; instead, let’s concentrate on the “real language” and fundamentals of rugby.

 

Respectfully

LV Letalu

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