England’s World Cup bid was just minutes old when Billy Vunipola launched himself into contact off the back of a lineout and Tonga’s Zane Kapeli floored him with a tackle that landed the big No 8 flat on his arse.
Tonga had warned the Saracen about what was coming. Head coach Toutai Kefu had spoken pre-game about how his players would look to smash the 26-year-old of Tongan stock who had been born in Sydney, grew up in Wales and England and eventually chose to wear the Red Rose.
Kapeli, a 6’ 2”, 20-stone back row who plies his daily trade with the Bay of Plenty Steamers in New Zealand, was still looking to land the blows when he discussed that hit in the post-match mixed zone. “There’s definitely a bit of edge to it when we’re facing those Tongan fellas,” he admitted.
All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Bundee Aki and Samoa this Saturday.
Aki’s heritage traces back to the tiny Pacific island and there are more links again connecting him to Saturday’s opposition. The Ireland centre played for Counties Manukau at the same time as Ahsee Tuala and Ray Lee-Lo. He played for the Chiefs with Tim Nanai-Williams, his childhood friend and neighbour back in the South Auckland suburb of Manurewa.
All three are in Japan with Samoa at the World Cup but this won’t be the first time the Connacht centre has been tasked with the job of taking down a team and a country dear to his heart. Aki played a key role in beating his native New Zealand last year and this after some distasteful needle on the part of the All Blacks.
It was assistant coach Ian Foster who delivered the loaded and snide remark that Aki ‘looked like an Irishman’ before the All Blacks’ game in Dublin 11 months ago. The player himself was admirably respectful and balanced about the prospect of facing his native country in the lead-up to that encounter and was again when asked about Samoa last week.
It seems that respect will work both ways. “No, it’s nothing personal,” said Samoa’s TJ Ioane.
It doesn’t matter who is on the opposition, whether he is from the islands or he has got Samoan descent. We just... play hard against everyone in the opposition. It doesn’t change our mindset because Bundee is playing for Ireland. We just treat him as another Irishman.
You could argue that Samoa need all the motivation they can get given their hopes of making it past the pool stages for the first time since 1999 are already shot and the carrot of automatic qualification for 2023 via a third-place finish ended with Scotland’s bonus-point win against Russia yesterday.
Ioane and fellow back row Josh Tyrell have both played up their determination to go out on a high and there is no doubt but that the Islanders have the heft and talent to make life uncomfortable for Ireland if Joe Schmidt’s men aren’t fully on message in Fukuoka at the weekend. There is pride at stake and they seem intent on satisfying it.
“It’s just trying to make our country, our family proud,” said Ioane. “If we can do that, it’d be something.”
Ioane, whose yellow card against Japan was Samoa’s fifth of the tournament, has another reason to stand out at the Hakatanomori Stadium. An employee of London Irish, there would be bragging rights to be had around the Premiership club on his return to club duties were he to carry Ireland’s scalp .
The openside flanker was one of 25 Samoan players and staff who took in a samurai exhibition at Fukuoka City Museum on Tuesday and he spoke afterwards about how Declan Kidney, his coach with the Exiles and one of Schmidt’s predecessors with Ireland, had called to wish him a qualified measure of luck at the weekend.
“He said, ‘good luck, just to you, because you know where I stand and who I support this week’. He is a very good man, very passionate. You Irish are similar to ourselves. They back themselves. They have a lot of pride and passion. They bleed green like we bleed blue, just very passionate people.”
Paddy Jackson’s signing, followed by the decision by some commercial backers to end their association with the club, has garnered most of the headlines made by the Exiles in recent months and overshadowed what has otherwise been seen as a hugely positive period for the club.
Promoted back to the top flight after a comfortable passage through the Championship, they are due to move digs from the Madejski Stadium in Reading to a ground share with Brentford at Kew Gardens in 2020 and they’re banking on a stellar cast to fill both venues.
Seán O’Brien was the billboard signing until the excitement over his arrival was curbed by another injury setback, but a multinational squad will feature the likes of former All Black Waisake Naholo, Australia’s Nick Phipps and Steve Mafi who has signed from Castres.
Oh man, very exciting. They have done a lot of recruiting this year and obviously Declan has had a lot to do with the guys who have been brought in and we want to really push for that Premiership. Yeah, it’s been good. Dec has brought in a real tight-knit group.
“He is all about togetherness and boys wanting to play for one another. He wants to build a good culture around that so he has really just built a family club and boys are really wanting to play for one another.
“We get that foundation, that he has built, and that is the mentality. No-one comes into our house. It is about trying to build a fortress at London Irish. We are taking good steps in where we want to be and competing for everything, for every game.”