Decline in scholarships limits rugby talent

The man who secured rugby scholarships for dozens of Samoans throughout the 1990s thinks the best way to develop elite talents is to send them offshore in their mid-teens to maximise their potential. 

Uaea Laki Apelu was Director of Rugby for the Samoa Rugby Union from 1991 to 2001, and he took the lead on working with the Samoa Schools Rugby Union to facilitate high school scholarships in New Zealand, Australia and England for local players.

It all kicked off when he took a team of schoolboys to a tournament at Whakatane, New Zealand in 1992.

One of the teams competing was Kelston Boys’ in West Auckland – who were coached by a legend-to-be in Sir Graham Henry.

And Apelu said the future Rugby World Cup winner was taken by the boys from the island:

“When Graham Henry said ‘Laki, what’s the chance of a couple of these guys to come to Kelston’, I said you can bring the whole 28.”

Henry took two in the end; Toa Samania and Ioane Vaalotu of Avele College.

The next year Kelston brought four Samoans on scholarships.

“And then it started building up from that at Auckland Grammar, Mt Albert Grammar,” Apelu said.

“They saw these [scholarship players] and then they started inquiring.”

Apelu recalls more than 90 students he helped secure overseas scholarships for, more than 20 of whom went on to play for the Manu Samoa.

“Because they were given proper coaching,” Apelu said.

“Also they were playing in good quality competitive rugby at the schoolboy level.

“They started coming through in the ’95 World Cup in South Africa.”

He built very close ties with the overseas schools and their Principals.

“I helped bridge the skills with kids here to compete in New Zealand, and then Australia took some, and then England,” Apelu said.

“They were commodities; it’s like ordering a drink – it’s gotta be this flavour, it’s gotta look this colour.

“They want a prop that scrums, ballcarries, can lift.”

The Samoan Schools team used to play Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand in regular tours both at home and abroad, which was priceless exposure"

“If we’d take 32 guys on tour, by the end of a tour there’d be 20 with schools interested in them,” Apelu said.

What did come with a price tag was the education all those young men were getting for free.

“To Kelston, you’re looking at NZ$30,000 in school fees and tuition,” Apelu said.

Players went to Anglican Grammar in Brisbane (AU$50,000), even as far as Rossall School in England (£30,000) and received educations that would otherwise have been completely unattainable.

By Apelu’s rough calculations, some six million tala in scholarships were taken up during his tenure at the Samoa Rugby Union (S.R.U.).

“The thing I focussed on was their education, whether they played good rugby or not, there was a chance to get a good education for a good job,” he said.

“The parents realised the value of this opportunity.”

Apelu said it was the living skills gained as well, having to learn a new language and fit into a new culture and environment, while living away from home for the very first time.

But when he left S.R.U. in 2001, the focus on attaining scholarships waned.

And now there are a decreasing number of Samoans at the highest levels of the sport.

“At one time, 60% of the Manu Samoa players were locals. To one single player at the World Cup,” Apelu said.

Halfback Melani Matavao was the only player based in Samoa to go to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and just two additional others (Alapati Leiua and Logovi’i Mulipola) were homegrown products.

While professionalism means the best local players will always head overseas to pursue opportunities these days, Apelu sees no reason why there should be so much less talent coming through on the island.

“They’ve got the genes,” he said.

One of the points against scholarships in terms of creating Manu Samoa players is that the recipients may end up representing the nation they head to.

Apelu secured scholarships for Sosene Anesi, David Smith and Chris Masoe, who all chose to play for New Zealand rather than Samoa where they were born and raised.

“I had an argument with the Rugby Union, they said ‘we are worried that New Zealand’s going to get them,” he said.

“Good on them, if they end up playing for New Zealand, good on them.

“These kids, before going over there, they already have dreams of playing in the Manu Samoa.”

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