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Samoa’s aging elite rugby population

Samoa’s best rugby exports are aging out of the world’s elite professional leagues, with seemingly little new talent at the level required to replace them.

Pacific Rugby Player Welfare Chief Executive Officer, Daniel Leo, said his organisation are preparing for up to a quarter of Pacific Islander players in Europe to not receive contracts for next season, with Samoans and Tongans making up the bulk of that at-risk group.

That follows a 2018/19 club season which already saw a decrease in Samoa representative players in the highest levels of the domestic game (Super Rugby, Premiership Rugby, Pro 14, Top 14).

In England’s Premiership Rugby, Manu Samoa players past and present Anthony Perenise (Bath to the French second division’s Rouen), Tusi Pisi (Bristol to the Japanese second division’s Toyota Industries Shuttles), Jack Lam (Bristol to the Japanese first division’s NEC Green Rockets), Ken Pisi (released by Northampton), Johnny Leota (Sale Sharks to the English third division’s Sale FC) and Alafoti Fa’osiliva (Worcester to the English second division’s Bedford) were all released by their top-flight clubs, while Logovi’i Mulipola and Sinoti Sinoti dropped to the Championship with relegated Newcastle.

Only five Manu players stepped up to the first division and a higher level of club rugby for the 2019/20 season; Ed Fidow (Provence to Worcester), Belgium Tuatagaloa (Valence Romans to London Irish) and Nephi Leatigaga (Biarritz to Leicester) all joined from the lower divisions in France, while Motu Matu’u and TJ Ioane were promoted to the Premiership with London Irish.

There are currently just two homegrown players (defined as being based in Samoa up until their mid-teenage years) in the Premiership – veteran Manu outside back Alapati Leiua of Bristol and Melani Nanai of Worcester, who is internationally uncapped.

In France’s Top 14, Ole Avei (Racing 92 to Angeloume) and Piula Fa’asalele (Toulouse to Perpignan) both signed for second division clubs in 2019/20, where they are joined in Pro D2 by relegated Seilala Lam, Manu Leiataua and Genesis Mamea Lemalu (all Perpignan) and Taiasina Tuifu’a (Grenoble).

Going the other way were Manu Samoa players Jamie-Jerry Taulagi (Pro D2’s Mont-de-Marsan to Agen) and Masalosalo Tutaia (Perpignan to Bordeaux).

Of the three homegrown products playing in Top 14, only Viliamu Afatia (Bayonne) is available for Manu Samoa selection.

Clermont’s Fritz Lee isn’t eligible to play for the Manu having represented New Zealand in sevens, while Toulouse’s Joe Tekori announced his international retirement ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

None of the Manu players in Top 14, which features clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa, lost their places for the 2019/20 season, while Teofilo Paulo was picked up by his old club Cardiff Blues.

While there are no homegrown products in the Top 14, there is one in the Southern Hemisphere’s Super Rugby; Tumua Manu of the Chiefs, who remains internationally uncapped.

Elsewhere in Super Rugby, all four Manu Samoa representatives Kane Le’aupepe (Hurricanes), Ray Niuia (Blues), Michael Alaalatoa (Crusaders) and Scott Malolua (Reds) retained their places in the competition for 2020.

Equally concerning to the decreasing number of Samoan professionals in the world’s top leagues is the age profile of those that remain.

The average age across Manu Samoa and homegrown Samoan players in those four elite competitions is over 29 and 9 months (27 and a half in Super Rugby, over 28 in the Premiership, nearly 32 in Top 14 and nearly 31 in Pro 14).

This aging talent pool meant Samoa had the third oldest team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup at an average age of just less than 29.

This was over a year more than the average age of the eight quarterfinalist’s squads.

Samoa also only took three homegrown players to the World Cup (Melani Matavao, Logovi’i Mulipola and Alapati Leiua), the lowest number in any squad in the history of the competition.

And of the six homegrown players in the four elite domestic leagues, Viliamu Afatia (29), Alapati Leiua (31), Fritz Lee (31) and Joe Tekori (36) are all theoretically past their primes, and much more likely to be retired from all rugby than starring for Samoa at the next World Cup in 2023.

By comparison, Fiji currently have 68 homegrown players across the four elite leagues (33 in Top 14, 13 in Super Rugby, 11 in Pro 14 and 11 in the Premiership), while Tonga have 25 (10 in Super Rugby, 10 in Top 14 and five in the Premiership. 

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