Where was the Pacific flair?

TAINE RANDELL COLUMN
Last updated 05:00 02/10/2011
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Samoa's David Lemi makes a break past Springbok Tendai Mtawarira during Friday night's match at North Harbour Stadium.

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The three Pacific Island teams – Tonga, Samoa and Fiji – had their moments in this year's World Cup but they let themselves down by abandoning their traditional styles.

This has been a very disappointing World Cup for the Pacific Islands teams. Disappointing as far as results go as they haven't been able to produce their customary boilover and none will feature in the quarterfinals.

Their approach has also been disappointing. We haven't seen that traditional free-flowing game we have come to admire from our Island neighbours.

It would be nice to think Fiji could really move the ball around against Wales in Hamilton this afternoon. But don't bet on it.

Samoa have been the best of the Island teams and it was great to see them put up such a spirited performance against the Springboks.

But I couldn't help but feel that it was all a bit too little too late.

In the second half, Samoa showed glimpses of what could be achieved against the South African defence. They opened them up more times than other sides have managed and it will be something noted by coaching staff of some of the title contenders.

With the Boks employing a rush defence led by Jaque Fourie, the imposing centre who is the best exponent of this method in world rugby, the Samoans used some clever tactics in the areas inside Fourie's danger zone.

Simple looping around moves between first- and second-fives allowed the Samoans to slip through the inside areas and get in behind the Boks and from there they were able to spread the ball wider.

It's been a bit of a Catch 22 scenario for the Island teams over the past three weeks. We have seen a lift in performances. They no longer get whipped by some of the heavyweight sides.

Put that down to the large number of professionals in their ranks. They are fitter, more committed and have good habits.

We have seen a lift in the set-piece work of all three sides – Samoa, Fiji and Tonga – and that is to be commended.

But it seems to have been at the expense of their traditional flair.

There is no doubt this has everything to do with the coaching influences these players are now under.

They ply their trade around the world in New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Europe.

We are also seeing increasing use of foreign coaches in the make-up of their management teams.

As a result, we are seeing a far more structured game plan. But I don't believe the Island teams will succeed trying to play like the All Blacks or the Wallabies or even the Boks. Endless pick-and-goes just isn't their natural game.

The challenge now, as they head off to prepare for the 2015 World Cup, is to take the good things that come with this pragmatic approach and blend them with their Polynesian strengths. They still need to maximise the genetic advantages they have with their size and explosive abilities.

Rugby doesn't need to have every team playing the same way, especially not the Island sides with their unique talents.

It was a sad end for Samoa. They contributed plenty to a fantastic match at Albany, where they had plenty of support in the South African stronghold. The general enthusiasm of the Island supporters has helped make this a very special World Cup and it will be sad to see that disappear as we head into the quarterfinals.

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How will the Springboks go with the defence of their title at the business end of the tournament? That's an interesting scenario. Just as they did against Wales, they got off to a steaming start against Samoa but went off the boil and their performance fell away. The patchy nature of their play will be a concern.

But a bigger problem may be the loss of Francois Steyn to a tournament-ending shoulder injury and the ongoing injury problems with Bakkies Botha.

They are two players central to this side. Botha is your stereotypical Boks hard man and Steyn is your big-kicking South African back.

And when I say big, I mean very big. In the warmups at Albany, we calculated Steyn landed one goal from 68m. That ability breaks the hearts of opposition and its absence takes away a major threat.

I felt the Boks were building some ominous form during pool play. But they stalled against Samoa and I now tend to think their likely quarterfinal against Australia might be swinging in favour of the Wallabies, who have had the chance to regroup with a couple of easier games after their shock loss to Ireland.

Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain

- © Fairfax NZ News

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