Former Samoan rugby boss Sir Michael Fay says the management structure of the Samoan team needs to change from a hierarchical to a merit-based system if they are to enjoy further progress in international rugby.
Sir Michael had hands-on involvement as chairman of Manu Samoa Rugby Ltd (a joint venture between the Samoa Rugby Union and Fay Richwhite) from 1995 and 2004 as part of a personal $5 million investment from Fay and partner David Richwhite to build a better rugby team and structure. His comments back up those of national skipper Mahonri Schwalger last week. Schwalger led the fallout from this year's tournament when Samoa missed the quarter-finals. It came after his review memo to the board chairman (and Prime Minister) Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi was leaked and published in the Samoan Observer.
Schwalger praised the coaching team but was critical of management, including vice-chairman Lefau Harry Schuster, chief executive Su'a Peter Schuster, team manager Matthew Vaea and assistant manager Ryan Schuster. He was backed up by midfielder Eliota Sapolu, a player not averse to speaking his mind after receiving punishments for doing so during the tournament. There were suggestions a player strike had been mooted, team management had sold team gear for profit and players were disappointed to be paid less than fellow Pacific Islanders from Tonga and Fiji.
Fay says it would have been difficult for Schwalger to speak out: "I think he deserves to be applauded. At a World Cup, all the structures around a professional team have to be right. After his efforts on the field it's impossible for the captain to have the time and energy to cover up for a woefully inadequate management team. He was in the squad when I was involved; he's an individual who earns respect and I admire him for taking a stand, it's not easy. He would have been reluctant to be critical of older people in senior positions.
"You have a risk in a small community like Samoa that often jobs are given based on seniority and relationships rather than ability and qualifications. There's no way Samoan fans - who are as mad on rugby as any other country - deserve anything less than a totally professional management structure. Only the best qualified should hold positions - there's no room for 'jobs for the boys' in any aspect of professional sport."
A common theme from other Samoan sources contacted by the Herald on Sunday suggest Schwalger - noted by one as "a humble individual who doesn't normally seek the limelight" - was anywhere from 100 to 150 per cent right and the team had been worse for not being able to fully concentrate on the rugby. Many mirrored Fay's comments, saying the players were trapped in a system where they're forced to be respectful to elders and it was heartbreaking to see them let down by management.
Other well-placed sources in Samoan coaching, administrative and player family fields told the Herald on Sunday Schwalger and Sapolu were doing it for the good of the team, out of a sense of responsibility because there was no money motive.
Schwalger is understood to have been upset he couldn't take the whole team back to Samoa to thank the people for their support. He was described by one source as "the ultimate pro, especially given how much work he had to do as an intermediary between the coaches, the administration, the players and the people both in New Zealand and in Samoa.
"A lot more rides on his shoulders than most other national rugby skippers, even Richie McCaw."
Former Otago coach Lee Smith has been an International Rugby Board consultant to the Pacific Islands since 2001 and has dealt with the sport there since becoming the New Zealand union's director of coaching in 1988. He says despite Schwalger and Sapolu's sentiments, change is difficult to initiate.
"Most Pacific societies, since their inception, have been hierarchical. You have to respect those who are further up the chain. If you're younger, no matter what, you have to do what the elders say. Problems can emerge when you have Samoan players brought up for several generations in New Zealand who are used to a more egalitarian society."
# Meanwhile, the Fiji Rugby Union has sacked its national selectors in one of its first public responses to the failure of the Fijian team at the Rugby World Cup.
The Fiji Broadcasting Corporation has reported that coach Sam Domoni was likely to be sacked along with Talemo Waqa, head of Fiji rugby's High Performance Unit.