Preview: Samoa v USA

Date published: September 18 2015

Quarter-final hopefuls Samoa kick off their Rugby World Cup campaign in Brighton this Sunday at home to the USA.

The two sides met as recently as three months ago in San Jose during the Pacific Nations Cup, when Samoa triumphed 21-16 but only after holding a 21-3 lead at half-time and watching the USA fight back in front of a home crowd.

Stephen Betham rested several top players for that match including Kahn Fotuali'i, George Pisi, Tim Nanai-Williams and captain Ofisa Treviranus, all of who return on Sunday.

Because of those four players returning, along with other top players playing their rugby in England, France and Super Rugby, Samoa are being considered as potential quarter-finalists.

They have faced the USA four times since 1999 with four victories to their name, but never by a margin of more than seven points.

Now though there is a real belief that a special Samoa outfit, much like Fiji, are on the brink of a major challenge.

Rugby fans across the globe took notice last season when Samoa's players protested to call for sweeping reforms in the Samoan Rugby Union, especially when it came to player payments.

A new CEO and agreement between the Union and players have partially rectified the situation which is exciting for the future of the game in Samoa, starting over the next six weeks.

Battling with Scotland to qualify for a spot in the last eight is the challenge ahead for a talented group of players looking to make their first Rugby World Cup quarter-final since 1995.

Success for the USA might take a little longer but the growing sense is that with a deep talent pool just waiting to be tapped into, they are a sleeping giant.

Last year's Test against the All Blacks in front of 61,500 at Soldier Field in Chicago felt like a glimpse into the future of rugby in the USA, the result aside, and the sport is growing at a remarkable rate in the United States, faster than any other.

The current crop is a mixture of rising stars and established ones, with Toulon forward Samu Manoa and USA captain Chris Wyles leading the charge while the likes of fly-half AJ MacGinty and forward Cam Dolan begin to impress.

Samoa have made nine changes compared to the XV who started the Pacific Nations Cup final defeat against Fiji in August. Only two of the backs selected for that match – scrum-half Fotuali'i and centre Alesana Tuilagi – have retained their places, along with props Sakaria Taulafo and Anthony Perenise, lock Iosefa Tekori and flanker Jack Lam.

Five players started Samoa's last RWC match, a 13-5 defeat by South Africa four years ago. Sakaria Taulafo, Mauri Fa'asavalu, Fotuali'I, Tusi Pisi and Tuilagi make up that quintet.

Fly-half Pisi needs to score 29 points to overtake Earl Va'a's Test record of 174 for Samoa.

With a total of 306 caps, this is one of the more experienced Samoa teams to start a RWC match, beaten only by the line-up which started against South Africa at RWC 2011 and contained 316 caps.   

Meanwhile, captain Wyles, Mike Petri and Takudzwa Ngwenya will all appear in their third Rugby World Cup for the USA.

The three thereby equal the team record shared by Mike McDonald, Paul Emerick and Alec Parker.

Two other Eagles squad members who could play in their third RWC, Mate Moeakiola and Louis Stanfill, are not in the 23 for Sunday's match.

Thretton Palamo returns to the side. Palamo played in one match in 2007 when, aged 19, he became the youngest player in a RWC match. Palamo will lose his record on Saturday to Georgia's Vasil Lobzhanidze, 18, who is in the team to play Tonga.

Players to watch:

For Samoa: All eyes will be on Tim Nanai-Williams – the Chiefs back who qualified to play for Samoa through playing in a number of Sevens World Series events last year. Having the cousin of Sonny Bill Williams in their ranks is a coup for Samoa when you consider how threatening Nanai-Williams has proved to be in Super Rugby. Quick on his feet with real pace, he will give the USA's defence a tough time.

For USA: There are big hopes for fly-half AJ MacGinty, the Irish-born youngster who qualified to play for the USA in July this year. At 25 this is his first Rugby World Cup and there's no doubt that he lacks experience at Test level with only five caps to his name. However, MacGinty has shown enough promise to indicate that he might be a long-term option in a key position for the Eagles going forward. Samoa will look to test his defence.

Head to head: Two key men at number eight – the Samoa captain Ofisa Treviranus and the USA's Samu Manoa. Treviranus has been a consistently top performer for his club side in the English Premiership, London Irish, and leads from the front through his strong tackling and carrying. Manoa in the same league has become a superstar, enough for Toulon to splash the cash in order to sign him up. Playing at number eight rather than in the second row, Manoa should be able to get the ball in his hands more – bad news for Samoa's tacklers.

Previous results:

2015: Samoa won 21-16 in San Jose

2007: Samoa won 25-21 in Saint-Etienne

2000: Samoa won 19-12 in San Francisco

1999: Samoa won 27-20 in Apia

Prediction: The return of Samoa's starters gives them a big advantage going into Sunday's game, enough to secure a solid win, although securing a try bonus point isn't guaranteed. Samoa by 15!

The teams:

Samoa: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Paul Perez, 12 Rey Lee-Lo, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Tusi Pisi, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Ofisa Treviranus (c), 7 Jack Lam, 6 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Teofilo Paulo, 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Ole Avei, 1 Zak Taulafo

Replacements: 16 Viliami Afatia, 17 Motu Matu'u, 18 Census Johnston, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Alafoti Faosiliva, 21 Vavao Afemai, 22 Mike Stanley, 23 Fa'atoina Autagavaia

USA: 15 Blaine Scully, 14 Takudzwa Ngwenya, 13 Seamus Kelly, 12 Thretton Palamo, 11 Chris Wyles (c), 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Mike Petri, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Andrew Durutalo, 6 Al McFarland, 5 Greg Peterson, 4 Hayden Smith, 3 Titi Lamositele, 2 Zach Fenoglio, 1 Eric Fry

Replacements: 16 Phil Thiel, 17 Oli Kilifi, 18 Chris Baumann, 19 Cam Dolan, 20 Danny Barrett, 21 Shalom Suniula, 22 Folau Niua, 23 Brett Thompson

Date: Sunday, September 20
Venue: AMEX Stadium, Brighton
Kick-off: 12:00 local
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)