Western Samoa hand Wales a lesson
October 6, 1991
To'o Vaega en route to the try line
© PA Photos
Wales were effectively dumped out of the 1991 Rugby World Cup, which they co-hosted, at the first hurdle, beaten by a rampant Western Samoa team who lit up the tournament. The humiliating defeat is often talked of as a shock, but Welsh rugby was at such a low ebb that it was more a case of slipping from bad to worse.
Wales had suffered from defections to rugby league since the 1987 World Cup, when they had finished third. In 22 matches from 1988 to 1991 they had beaten only England (once), Western Samoa (once) and Namibia (twice) in a period so bad that some, including Gerald Davies in the Times, questioned whether the decline was terminal. He described "a melancholy born of shoulder-hunching and long suffering resignation; it is no longer that of a sudden tragic death."
Davies lamented that defeat "through infinite repetition, has become bearable", continuing that it "belonged safely and indelibly marked among the haunting litany of recent years."
There had been nine changes in the Welsh team since a 12-try, 63-6 rout on the summer tour to Australia, but only one World Cup warm up match was arranged. So there was a certain naivety about their approach to the game, a lack of preparation unimaginable in the modern day, but unforgivable even in 1991. Bob Norster, Wales manager, later admitted his men had played into the Samoans' hands. "We tried to run at their hard-hitting side; to get through them that way instead of letting the ball do the work. They were quicker in thought and deed."
Motivated by their exclusion from the inaugural World Cup four years before, the Samoans tore Wales apart, physically and emotionally. Phil May (dislocated shoulder), Ritchie Collins and Tony Clement were forced off injured. Ferocious tackling, inspired by studying rugby league methods and often high but within the law, knocked Wales backwards time and again for more than an hour.
Though familiar names like Pat Lam, Frank Bunce, Brian Lima and Stephen Bachop appear on Western Samoa's team sheet, they lacked international experience at the time. Over half the team, however, was based in New Zealand, including captain, prop and specialist piano shifter, Peter Fatialofa.
A stunned Wales survived to be level 3-3 at half-time. In the first minute of the second half, Samoan centre To'o Vaega kicked ahead and chased side by side with Robert Jones for the touchdown. The Welsh scrum half got to the ball first but French referee Patrick Robin blew his whistle and awarded a try when everyone expected a 22 metre drop-out.
Wrong though the decision was, a 9-3 lead was no more than Western Samoa deserved. They had made all the running in the game and even dominated the lineout, making Wales "look thoroughly uneasy and sometimes incompetent throughout," according to Davies.
Their second try was no fluke. It came from a prolonged period of attack, showing the Samoans had silky handling skills to match their tackling, flanker Sila Vaifale eventually scoring.
© PA Photos
Past the hour, Western Samoa began to tire. The Welsh crowd, subdued to near silence since the beginning, came alive with their team when Arthur Emyr scored and Mark Ring's conversion brought them within a score at 13-9 down. But it was too little, too late. Mathew Vaea's late penalty stretched the lead to seven points, so when Ieuan Evans went over for a try in injury time, it meant nothing.
Evans, the Welsh captain, praised the Samoan performance, admitting to being "knocked back a couple of yards at a time." About the Samoans' first try, he said: "I was only three yards away and Robert clearly put his hands on the ball first. The referee was back on the 25 but we have to abide by his decision."
In Western Samoa, 15,000 had watched the match on a giant screen, despite the kick-off at 1am local time. While celebrations lasted long into the night in Cardiff, Bryan Williams, Western Samoa's coach later reported that, "the parties back home went on until everyone had to go to church."
Wales skulked off to a rehabilitation centre in Brecon to lick their wounds. They beat Argentina 16-7 in midweek but were thumped 38-3 by Australia the following weekend, leaving them unable to reach the quarter-finals.
Samoa went on to beat Argentina and put up a stirring show of running rugby in losing the quarter-final to Scotland. They bowed out to a rapturous ovation from the Murrayfield crowd as they reprised their pre-match war dance, the Siva Tau, after the match. Western Samoa put the biggest smile on the 1991 World Cup, except in the principality.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd