The original cross-Island rivalry
September 23, 2011
Samoa's Mike Umaga looks to make a break against Fiji back in 1998 in Canberra © Getty Images
Whether or not it affects the chase for the quarter-finals - at the very least the third place finish that guarantees direct entry to the 2015 World Cup should be at stake - Sunday's match between Fiji and Samoa should be one of the great occasions of the current World Cup.
It will pack Eden Park to its 60,000 capacity with passionate fans drawn from New Zealand's huge Samoan and Fijian communities. They'll look forward to a game that is both a test of regional pride and a showcase for the formidable qualities of pacific island rugby.
It will all be very different to their first-ever meeting in Samoa's capital Apia in 1924. It was a first international for both countries, although Fiji had a rather longer rugby heritage. The game had been played there for at least 40 years, there had been competition since 1904 and a union from 1913. All of their team were drawn from the five-team Native Competition set up, under a segregated structure, in 1914.
Samoan rugby was rather more recent, with most accounts reckoning that it was introduced by Marist priests who arrived in 1920 when New Zealand replaced Germany as coloniser. Their union had been set up earlier in 1924. The Fijians regarded the match as a curtain-raiser for a three-match tour of Tonga. A party of 20 players had been sent by boat at a total cost of £160, an amount raised by local subscriptions headed by the acting governor of the islands, who came up with £5.
The Fijians had arrived in Apia the previous afternoon and walked over to look at the ground before going early to bed. This reflected not only the clean living proclivities of Fijian players - most were teetotal Methodists and a later team in Australia staggered their hosts not for the usual reasons that female hotel staff are wont to remember rugby teams, but by insisting on helping to clean their own rooms - but good sense in view of the kick-off time.
The match kicked off at 7am on Monday 18th August 1924, a time chosen to allow the Samoan players to go to work after the match. That somewhat antisocial hour was perhaps one reason why the match attendance was a comparatively modest 500 to 600. They were gathered around a pitch whose distinctive features included a small tree on the halfway line. Both teams played in bare feet, with Samoa wearing white shirts and Fiji black.
The match was reported for the Fiji Times and Herald by A.S.Farebrother, the manager of the Fijian team - a role he took on because he happened to have a business trip that fitted with the squad's itinerary. He reported that the crowd 'barracked hard for the local team' in a contest reckoned by all as 'the cleanest and finest exhibition of football played in Samoa.'
Fiji won 6-0 after a match displaying patterns of play that still echo today. Farebrother reported that the Samoan forwards 'were far too heavy for the Fiji men' and so had a clear edge in the scrums. But Fiji more than made up for it in other ways: "The speed of the Fijimen seemed to be the main reason for the success attained."
The Fijians scored a try in each half. The first was claimed by wing Viliame Devo after a dribbling rush - the most effective means of attack in conditions that made the ball greasy and tough to handle. The second try was scored by centre Sevenaca Tamanibeka, dodging his way over. Farebrother reported that 'the men of Apia will have to be reckoned with when the return match is played in about a month', but reckoned Fiji would win again. He proved to be wrong about that, as the Samoans won 9-3 on 19th September.
He also reported that discussions were underway to send a combined Pacific Islands team on tour to New Zealand in 1925. Nothing seems to have become of this, at least until 2004 when the Pacific Warriors (now apparently in abeyance following Samoa's withdrawal) made their debut.
In between those two matches against Samoa, Fiji went off to Tonga for a three-Test series that ended, following a 0-0 draw in the final match, equally shared. It launched a regular series of contests over the next decade, with three-match series played alternately in Fiji and Tonga in 1926, 1928, 1932 and 1934. Fiji also entertained the New Zealand Maoris in 1938 and 1939. A almost constant feature across this time was lock Atanaisa Laqueretaba, one of the 1924 pioneers who appeared in 19 of the Fiji's first 21 internationals, playing for the last time in 1938. His record as Fiji's most capped player was not equalled until Jope Naucabalavu played his 19th and last match in 1970 and not broken until another of the great days in Fijian history, the 25-21 victory over the 1977 Lions in which hooker Atonio Racika, one of the try scorers, claimed his 20th cap.
For Samoa - 1924 was, in spite of that opening win, something of a false start. There was another match against Fiji, a 9-3 defeat in Apia, in 1928 and a defeat by Tonga in 1932, but little else before the war. In 1955 they sent a team to Fiji, but the hosts did not award caps to their team - and the Fijian XV won all three matches. Fiji won a single match 29-6 in 1963, there was another match in 1979 and the series became a more or less regular feature from 1981 onwards.
Sunday's meeting will be their 45th with Fiji's 25-17 lead in wins a reflection of their 8-1 dominance in the first 10 matches up to 1982. Since then it has been pretty even. They have played in Canberra (in 1998) and in Tokyo (2001). Sunday's match will, though, be their first ever meeting in the World Cup finals and their first in New Zealand, the country that has had such an impact on the rugby (and wider) history of both island nations. It will have to go some, though, to be more remarkable than that early morning clash on the pitch with a tree on it back in 1924.
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