On The Loose

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They're the clandestine bad Boyz of Rugby World Cup 2003. On the field, the Samoans tackle cleanly, run straight, pass the ball habitually and for the cameras shine those great teeth in winning smiles. Away from official eyes, however, there's mayhem. They'll pile into a hotel lift in contravention of the maximum weight restriction; at the beach, they kick footballs high into swirling winds without alerting air traffic controllers; they've been known to push clothed team mates into swimming pools and use kickboards in ways that disturb coiffures. Perhaps their greatest sin at Rugby's international showcase, unlike the tightly wound professionals of greater lands, is that the men of Manu (Team) Samoa are enjoying themselves, infecting anyone venturing into their sphere with a virulent spirit of freedom and fun: Samoan Athletic Relaxation Syndrome. "To play well, the boys need to be relaxed," says Kenape Tuuan, Samoa's laid-back but resolute team manager, who pounces on anything that could introduce stress to this happy camp.

The morning after they won their opening match 60-13 against Uruguay in Perth, trainer Jarrod Presland is overseeing a pool recovery session at Arena Joondalup's aquatic center. Movement in water helps to ease away the soreness, he says, relieved that no one in the playing 22 was injured during the game. After walking and swimming several laps, players form a circle. Soon the aquatic center echoes to a traditional song and a brisk, rhythmic clapping of hands. When the singing veers off to a children's favorite, it's a cue for Test debutants Peter Poulos, 26, and Simon Lemalu, 22, to take turns at holding their breath under water. The fearsome Samoans are singing "Fly away, Peter/ Fly away, Simon." After several rounds of clapping, amid laughter and splashes, they finish with "Come back, Peter/ Come back, Simon." They've been baptized as internationals. "What you see is what you get with these guys," says physiotherapist Karen Sutton the next day at training. "Beautiful on the outside and inside."

Manu Samoa's exploits and playing style are part of rugby lore. But with players spread around the world in competitions of varying standards, coach John Boe says his is the hardest international squad to select. Some players pulled out of the team because their clubs would not continue their payments if they participated in the Cup, while youngsters with potential are in limbo, not eligible to play for Samoa because they have represented New Zealand at a level beneath Test rugby. While attacking flair and brutal defense are second nature to the players, Boe says his task is to mold a cohesive unit and to develop a structure to their play. "Our style is totally unpredictable," he says, in contrast to less creative teams such as the formidable England and South Africa in their pool. "We are capable of upset victories if we stick to two principles: self-belief that we can win and if we attack at every opportunity."

Yet when these wandering Samoans come together, Boe says, there's little need to go through team bonding exercises because of the players' strong sense of identity and the broader Samoan culture. Jeremy Tomuli, 32, is thrilled to be playing in his first World Cup - especially so given that his French club, Colomiers, has maintained his wages. "We are like one big family that comes in all shapes and sizes," says a smiling 125-kg Tomuli, looking around at his fellow stout front rowers, who are lingering at the breakfast table, and the taller speedsters, as hard as concrete under loose clothing, loping their way to the door. Although many of the players were born in New Zealand, they have been nurtured in the Samoan ethos. Christianity is a bedrock of the team's personality; not every player is as devout as assistant coach Michael Jones (who abstains from official duties on Sundays), but the daily prayer services, Biblical imagery and a quiet reverence in team meetings appear as natural to this team as crashing into tackling bags and lifting in line-outs.

Standing like an island prince, captain Semo Sititi, 29, says the motivations for playing at this level are his family and the people of Samoa. Sititi could have walked out of a parable about duty and discipline. His steady and humble presence when the team is in public is reassuring, say his teammates; perhaps no less effective for morale, either, as when he leads them in the pre-game Siva Tau war dance or after the No. 8's heart-pumping and spectacular charge to the try line in the team's 46-9 victory over Georgia. "The boys play for the right reasons," says Boe, hinting at the notion of honor before money. Although they are competing at an elite sporting event, some of the players do not earn much from playing rugby or their irregular jobs; the daily tour allowance is around $A100. It's not uncommon to see players from other countries with the latest video cell phones; the Samoans chat among themselves at the supermarket about the best deals on phone cards.

While fans and family are discouraged from coming to meet the team at their hotel during the Cup, there are ample opportunities to eat traditional foods and maintain family obligations during the tour, says Samoa Rugby Union ceo Phillip Muller. The players are loved by their fans, as the e-mails and faxes displayed at the entrance to the team room attest; the herograms come from soldiers serving in Baghdad and schoolgirls in Brisbane. But they are not idols, remote from their people. Or beyond advice. From Apia, the capital of their country of 176,000 people, one woman has urged the boys to "Kick Asses," while a minister of religion warns them not to dispute referees' calls. At the end of the game against Georgia, the players thanked Perth and their supporters by signing autographs, embracing folks and sharing their humor; they had scored 16 tries in two matches, topped the pool standings and Boe quipped: "Stop the tournament now!"

But the sad prospect lurking behind the team is that the country - and, by implication, its island counterparts Fiji and Tonga - may not be able to compete internationally after this tournament. In the professional era, as in all sports, at an early age the best players leave home for the game's better opportunities in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere; Samoa has long been a rugby farm, especially for the All Blacks, and its people regard selection for that famed team as a national triumph. But the larger powers in the game - national unions, provinces and wealthy clubs - are now accused of not putting enough resources back into the islands' grass roots. As well, the smaller countries would like to see some easing in the complicated rules regarding eligibility to play for them. The Rugby World Cup is the best platform for the poorer nations to speak up from. "We are in danger of having a five-horse race at the next World Cup," says coach Boe. "And that's not good for the game globally." Lovers of the game, regardless of the color of their face paint, can only pray such passion is not ignored.