Olympic qualification would ‘bring Samoa together’ -Auimatagi Sapani

(World Rugby/Pacnews) Samoa women’s sevens coach Auimatagi Sapani believes Olympic qualification could help unite the Pacific Island nation.

Both the Manusina and their male counterparts remain in contention for a place at Tokyo 2020, and are scheduled to compete in the Olympic repechage tournament in Monaco next month.

The two teams came close to qualifying for Rio 2016, as Manu Samoa lost the repechage final to Spain on the last play of the match, while the country’s women were beaten by Kazakhstan in their quarter-final.

Should either team be able to secure their place at a first Games, then Sapani hopes it can provide some cheer for a country currently in political deadlock.

“I want Samoans to come together in Samoa to celebrate if Manusina qualify for the Olympics,” he told World Rugby.

“We are confident we have the best team, who wants to qualify for the Olympics. Our players have international experience and they’ve played the best sevens teams in the world, like Australia, Fiji and New Zealand. 

“We have players who are free on the field and they contribute to the watchability of the games.”

Keeping the Olympic dream alive

Sapani and his counterpart with Manu Samoa, Brian Lima, have seen their plans for Olympic qualification affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Manusina have not competed in an international tournament since November, 2019, when they finished fifth at the Oceania Women’s Sevens Championship.

Samoa’s men, meanwhile, were last in action at the HSBC Canada Sevens in March, 2020, where they lost their ninth-place semi-final to France — who will arguably be their biggest rivals for qualification in Monaco.

Both squads have been preparing for the repechage tournament with domestic training camps and tournaments, while Sapani picked a squad of 16 players in February.

COVID restrictions have meant that neither coach has been able to include overseas players in their plans so far, although Sapani hopes to have four New Zealand-based players with the squad in France.

Several male and female Samoan players, including men’s captain Tomasi Alosio, did take part in the Takiwhitu Tūturu tournament in Wellington last month. And, the teams hope to be able to hold a training camp in New Zealand on their way to France. 

“Losing to Spain [in the Rio 2016 repechage final] was really heartbreaking so that’s what kept most of us in, [to] just keep the Olympic dream alive to come back and really find any opportunity to be an Olympian,” Alosio said last month.

“Leading into June we’ve just got to put in the hard work… and just going over there knowing that we’re going to give it 100 per cent.”

Huge impact

For Sapani, helping the Manusina to qualify for Tokyo would mark the end of a journey that began in 2015, when he took charge of the Samoan side for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Apia.

“Some of those girls are in today’s team,” he said. “To witness them in matches as a coach is a win for me and to qualify for the Olympics is a bonus.”

Former Samoa women’s international Filoi Eneliko has been working with the Manusina in her role as Samoa Lakapi Womens Academy Manager, and she believes Olympic qualification could be transformative.

“It [would be] a huge achievement and impact for our girls,” she said. 

“It’s a huge impact for our local women here too, you know, they just want to reach the highest level of competition. 

“If we qualify for Tokyo then we’re getting the support from all the parents, all the support from schools, all the support from clubs and even our whole country is going to support the girls and get their daughters to come and play rugby.”

Eneliko added: “Some [parents] do not allow their daughters to come and play rugby, but if we do qualify for Tokyo that is the biggest impact in their lives and they will let their daughters play rugby.”