Sevens and the limits of our expectations

After a splendid opening day of play at the Vailima International Sevens we extend our welcome to our international guests from Linwood, New Zealand and Fiji. 

They arrive against the backdrop of a colourful discussion about Samoan rugby’s place in the world.

Solutions contemplated to the recent steep decline in our performance have ranged from eugenics to the performance of our national coach.

One that can unite us all is greater exposure to international competition. Contests such as those we saw on display at Marist Stadium yesterday are a great thing for Samoan rugby, its fans and players alike. 

This year’s sevens tournament has not drawn the same depth of international competition as those previously. But amid restrictions on international travel imposed by the coronavirus and foreboding weather we can only express our gratitude for its being staged. 

The strong performance by the visiting team from A.Y.I. Fiji, though, suggests it will be another reminder of how far our national representatives have fallen from the high watermark established a decade ago. 

Recently attention has turned to the question of what the national sevens coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, has done to arrest this decline since his appointment in 2016.

Sir Gordon has bristled visibly at the scrutiny. This week he vehemently rejected a question about whether it was time for him to stand down. 

We believe a position with the stature (and compensation) of the national coach brings with it a responsibility to stand before the nation and account for the team’s performance. 

No one can forget the performance of the 2009-2010 team that stunned the world, securing victory and the pride of a nation punching well outside its weight class. 

But those days seem far away today with Samoa now ranked 13th in the world and facing relegation to the second-tier Challenger Series. 

It has been since 2016 and the Paris Sevens that our team has tasted success on the international stage.

But notwithstanding his responsibility to be answerable, Sir Gordon should also not nor have ever been viewed as a national saviour.

There is a tendency among sporting fans to ascribe to coaches a mastery of circumstances they do not possess. 

This may feed a human need for narratives but it underplays the role that other factors contribute to our team’s performance. 

Even the greatest coach in the world cannot transcend the raw materials with which he works - and, ultimately, the system that shaped and supported them.

The legendary feats of the Uale Mai and his former almost entirely local teammates remind us that residing within Samoa, from Falealupo to Lalomanu, we have players of a world-beating calibre. 

But the performance of our team at any given time reflects decisions and investments made (or not made) several years prior to any given game as much as the coach’s 

Sir Gordon earned his reputation as the world’s greatest coach by helming an All Blacks team raised by sophisticated grass roots infrastructure, maintained by annual investments equivalent to tala $10 million. 

By contrast, it was only this week that the water at Apia Park was reconnected. 

We have been unable to secure a satisfactory explanation from the Samoa Sports Facility Authority about how this came to pass.

A national system for player development, from the most junior leagues to the national stage seems like a distant dream in comparison. 

In this light, the fact that Sir Gordon has not been able to replicate the All Blacks’ superb international winning record should not be surprising.

Until it is supported by a systematic means of identifying and supporting talent and infrastructure, Samoan rugby will always be a hostage to fortune; its results on the field a consequence mainly of luck and circumstance.

Instead of seeking a hero we should be investing to secure the consistency of generations to come. 

Until then the team that wowed the world in 2010 will continue to be legends but also exceptions. 

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