While everyone has been celebrating the Tongan rugby league revolution, Samoa has been plagued with all sorts of low key dramas from too much eating in Samoan camp to niggly political stuff that seems an issue across all Samoan sport. Samoa are down to play Papa New Guinea in the mid-season international window and while I do have a predicted 17 for Samoa, their yarn is more about the players in the wider mix.
Tonga have enjoyed a steady but not completely one-way flow of players offering their services, Samoa has seen far more players head to play for Aotearoa over the past 18 months than Tonga. The likes of Ken Maumalo, Leeson Ah Mau, Herman Ese'ese and Raymond Faitala-Mariner all played for Aotearoa in Denver last year and only Maumalo is a near-certainty to win selection again, while Leeson Ah Mau is a likely bench contender.
This sets the scene for which Samoan eligible players will make a steady commitment to play for Samoa, adding to their squad. From the team that played Tonga last year, Tyrone May, Joseph Paulo, Sam Kasiano and Pita Godinet are unlikely to be used this time around; May's got dramas, while the older lads could be available from England/reserve grade.
Isaiah Papali'i started as an edge forward vs Tonga, then went on to tour with Aotearoa later in the year making his selection for Samoa unlikely. Papali'i's Aotearoa Warriors comrade Bunty Afoa suggested this week that he would be an eager Kiwis bench option if selected, but there are no shortage of robust, mobile forwards competing for a spot on the Kiwis bench and Afoa's a wee bit down the pecking order.
Kiwis coach Michael Maguire would be wise to select an extended squad, or implement a development system to offer Kiwis eligible players outside of the top-17 an opportunity to embed in Kiwis camp. The alternative is that guys like Afoa will continue to play for Samoa, which for Samoa is great.
There is a core group available to Samoa coach Matt Parish, which could again be led by Anthony Milford. Mason Lino has been battling away in reserve grade for Newcastle Knights and is a mandatory selection for Samoa, while forwards such as James Gavet, Dunamis Lui, Michael Chee-Kam and Ligi Sao are also likely to hold it down in the forward pack.
Backline consistency is also on offer, given that Christian Chrichton, Joey Leilua, Tim Lafai and Jorge Taufua are all available and playing decent enough footy. Dragons winger Jordan Pereira could win selection ahead of Bulldogs winger Chrichton and as Lino will need a new halves partner, Bulldogs utility Fa'amanu Brown is the best option despite only playing two NRL games so far this season.
Joseph Paulo and Pita Godinet were the hooking rotation last year, which definitely won't be repeated this year. With little dummy half depth, there is an option of playing Brown at hooker and Cowboys forward/half John Asiata has consistently proven himself to be a job-doing half. Another angle would be Panthers utility Jarome Luai, who has been starting in the halves to cover James Maloney and Nathan Cleary, allowing Asiata to play as a middle forward.
Samoa should be able to add Junior Paulo to their forward pack, while Sauaso Sue has also enjoyed consistent game time with Bulldogs and would add to Samoa's middle forward depth. I'd also throw Dragons forward Luciano Leilua into the mix, along with Knights utility Sione Mata'utia who could be an option as an edge forward. Veteran forward Frank Winterstein has had sporadic opportunities with the Panthers as an edge forward and he'd bolster the depth in that role.
Someone to watch in terms of eligibility is Jazz Tevaga, who has found a niche with the Warriors and has previously played for Samoa. Offer dummy half cover and a unique skill package as a middle forward, Tevaga would be a huge factor for Samoa if selected.
Here's my group of Samoa middle forwards in the mix...
Dunamis Lui, James Gavet, Junior Paulo, Herman Ese’ese, Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao, Jazz Tevaga, Josh Aloiai,
Michael Chee-Kam, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Sione Mata'utia, Frank Winterstein.
Alright, here's my predicted Samoa 17...
Fullback: Anthony Milford.
Wings: Jordan Pereira, Jorge Taufua.
Centres: Tim Lafai, Joey Leilua.
Halves: Jarome Luai, Mason Lino.
Middles: Junior Paulo, James Gavet, Dunamis Lui.
Edges: Michael Chee-Kam, Raymond Faitala-Mariner.
Hooker: Fa'amanu Brown.
Bench: Jazz Tevaga, Herman Ese’ese, Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao.
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