Vaimauga Eels Snatch Samoa PPS Super 9 Title



Like so many great footballing dramas, the Samoa PPS Super 9 Grand Final on June 22 came down to the last kick. The Aana Chiefs, up 12 v 7 at halftime and at one stage leading 20 v 7 against the two-time champion, Vaimauga Eels, had played inspired attacking rugby.

But in the face of sustained tackling and counterattacks in the second half, the tiring Chiefs defense cracked and the Eels scrummaged, mauled and ran their way to tries. As the clock wound down, the sin binning of the Chiefs captain looked like a turning point.

And yet, down by a score of 24 v 23, and having missed a penalty just two minutes earlier, the Chiefs were still alive thanks to another penalty awarded at the 80th minute. As the Chiefs kicker watched his effort drift wide, joyful Eels players and supporters stormed the ACP Marist St. Joseph’s pitch to claim the Alan Grey Cup and celebrate their third Super 9 Grand Final win in a row.

There was jubilation over an Eels three-peat and Chiefly disappointment at what might have been. The depth of emotions was testament to a hard fought match, but also reflected a competition that was creating genuine rivalries and drama.

Manu Samoa supporters, who carry high expectations for lakapi, have endured disappointment in recent years. Patience has worn thin over results in the HSBC World Rugby 7s Series, the 2015 Rugby World Cup and 2019 qualification process that followed a period of much publicized turmoil at the Samoa Rugby Union (SRU). But changes have been made and there is optimism about the upcoming World Cup.

The Union has achieved far greater stability and implemented structural reforms thanks to the efforts of its CEO, Faleomavaega Vincent Fepuleai under the watchful gaze of SRU Chair and Samoan Prime Minister Hon. Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.

The Manu Sina won the Asia Pacific Women’s Rugby Championship in June. And then there is the Super 9 competition, now in its third season.

Super 9 was developed as a replacement for Samoa’s National Provincial Championship (NPC). Though rich in tradition, the NPC had lost much of its excitement. In particular, dominance by the two Apia Unions produced lopsided and predictable results.

Shortly after taking over at SRU, CEO Vincent Fepuleai envisaged a more vibrant domestic competition, one better suited to the expectations and standards of professionalizing rugby.

As SRU Competition and Events organizer Salesa Seiuli told me, this was not a matter of whether the NPC was “good or bad”. In fact, he said, “it wasn’t bad – the NPC worked very well for that time period” and was at the heart of Manu Samoa’s successes in the 1970s and 1980s. But, he noted, we’re “in a different era now and have to change with the times”.

Conceding that “the game needed to be lifted in all areas”, Mr. Seiuli, who is responsible for running the Super 9, said “we were seeking a full change of things… so that everything is professionally done.”

For starters, the Union merged the old districts into a set of nine new franchises. In the case of Savaii, for example, that meant dividing the island in half. The franchises were asked to adopt names (Chiefs, Eagles, Eels, Knights, Legends, Navigators, Tornadoes, Vikings, Warriors) and colors consistent with their regional affiliation.

To avoid overwhelming dominance of the Apia region a player transfer system was implemented. Accordingly, after selecting from their own local player pools, the franchises can address positional weakness or other needs by selecting from Apia’s large player base.

Franchises were also encouraged to cast the net widely to recruit the best personnel to fill coaching, management, executive and marketing positions.

The Super 9 also adopted a robust media strategy and social media presence to generate energy and visibility. One game is screened live by TV1 Samoa each Saturday.

The franchises were encouraged to create their own Facebook pages where on-line talanoa now thrives. Meanwhile the SRU created a dedicated YouTube channel where it posts game footage for an increasingly global audience.

The Super 9 was also situated within a clearer development structure. The best players from Super 9 are expected to progress to national team development (Manu Samoa and Manu Sina 15s and 7s, Samoa A, Under-20s). Below, the Super 9 is fed by club competitions conducted in 18 districts. There are also primary and secondary school competitions as well as “Get into Rugby” programming for youngsters.

Above all there is the question of money. None of this is cheap and, as everywhere in the rugby world and especially the Pacific, concerns about funding are paramount. The SRU traditionally shouldered most of the financial burden including funds for uniforms, and assistance for travel/training/referees. There is also the matter of organizing match commissioners and assistants, statisticians, groundskeepers, referees, video, Red Cross and police support.

According to Mr. Seiuli, there was great relief in 2019 when Petroleum Product Supplies (PPS) purchased naming rights for the competition for $350,000 tala. Individual franchises were also asked to seek sponsors, some of them locating support of $50-100,000 tala.

Payments to players are variable. Better funded franchises, particularly those in the Apia area, pay upwards of $100 tala per week. Other franchises are only able to make payments at the end of the season in amounts of perhaps $400 or $500 tala.

Resistance to change was inevitable, but by listening, learning and implementing adjustments following the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the competition flourished and now includes both a U-20s and Women’s Division.

Immediately after the awarding of the Alan Grey trophy, the media and Manu Samoa officials gathered in the Marist St. Joseph’s Club hall to hear the Prime Minister announce Manu Samoa’s Rugby World Cup camp and Pacific Nations Cup squad.

To the delight of everyone, the list included six “local” players who had participated in the Super 9. For the local unions, said Mr. Seiuli, the selection of ‘homegrown talent” was especially important. “That’s closest to their hearts”, he said, “a reward for them and a justification of what we’re doing.”

But beyond national team development, it is also clear that for players who may never reach national rep status, Super 9 provides a well-run competition that allows everyone to progress to the best of their abilities.

The Super 9 remains a work in progress. Funding is and always will be the most important of many challenges faced by the SRU. There were also concerns this season over medical and judicial issues. Efforts are being made to expand women’s participation in 15s and enhance opportunities for girls in schools. It’s also probably time for a team other than the Eels to win the trophy.

What has emerged over the past three years is a carefully managed, structured and increasingly competitive format that is professional in its goals and outlooks but semi-professional or amateur in its resources.

“The sky’s the limit” said Seiuli. At a sunny Marist stadium, ringed by supporters and a small army of volunteers and with a soundtrack provided by a DJ, singing players, banter in the beer tent and the sizzling of grilled sausages, you couldn’t disagree with him. In fact, as a rugby fan, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Dr. Robert Dewey is Professor of History at DePauw University, USA. His research includes analysis of the history of rugby in the Pacific Islands.

by Robert Dewey

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