“You’ve just made history, boys!”
Samoan players were in tears after their 20-18 defeat of Tonga as coach Matt Parish told them that they were the first team from the Pacific nation to qualify for a World Cup semi-final in rugby league or rugby union.
Inspired by the success of Tonga at the 2017 World Cup, Samoa eliminated their Pacific neighbours after a gripping match that began with a combined Sipi Tau and Sivi Tau and was played with an intensity that ensured fans couldn’t turn away, while rival supporters sung hymns and chanted.
“It is pretty surreal,” prop Royce Hunt said. “We walked into the sheds after the game and the coach was like, ‘you just made history, boys’. We had a few tears in our eyes but we are not done yet. We still have a job to do.
“To go up against our brothers on the other side … we knew all week it was going to be a tough game and we just put our best foot forward. We did it for Samoa.”
Star five-eighth Jarome Luai added: “This is the furthest any Samoa side has gone, and it was good to do it against our Polynesian brothers. They have been successful for the past couple of years, and I am proud of the boys.”
Earlier, rival captains Junior Paulo and Jason Taumalolo had decided at the coin toss that their teams would perform a joint Sipi Tau and Sivi Tau.
While it may have looked choreographed, the decision to combine Samoa’s Sivi Tau and Tonga’s Sipi Tau was only made five minutes before the start of the broadcast.
Paulo, who is set to miss the semi-final against England at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium unless he successfully challenges a striking charge, suggested to Taumalolo that the teams perform their war dances simultaneously.
The first and only time they had previously done so was when the two nations met in New Zealand during the 2017 World Cup.
“When we headed out to the coin there were talks about who was going to go first and I just spoke to Jase briefly and threw the question out about whether we wanted to do it together,” Paulo said.
“I think it is a good sign of unity between the two nations, and the support for rugby league in general.
“Both teams can be proud of what they achieved over the course of the tournament because we are seeing both cultures being celebrated quite proudly all over the world, and I think that is part of our job as role models within our communities.
“We talk all the time about inspiring that next generation and you can definitely be proud and say that it is heading in the right direction for us.”
Halfback Anthony Milford, who has been playing for Samoa since 2013 and was the nation’s biggest star for many years, said the defeat of Tonga was his proudest moment in a blue jersey.
“Definitely, by far,” Milford said. “We created history for our small nation, and I couldn’t be prouder of the boys.”
To do so, Samoa had to bounce back from their 66-6 loss to England in the tournament opener in Newcastle and they now hope to complete a remarkable four week turn-around by beating the host nation at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in London.
“We have got some unfinished business with the England team,” Hunt said. “They embarrassed us in game one, so we are going to come out and hopefully put on a show for the world.
“We still had belief in our team and we just kind of pulled ourselves together during the week, and said let’s put the past behind us, and that’s what we did.”
Luai and Panthers team-mates Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton, Izack Tago, Taylan May and Spencer Leniu, as well the Eels duo of Paulo and Oregon Kaufusi, had only arrived in England six days before the opening match after playing in the NRL grand final.
“We didn’t have many session before our first game so apologies if we looked scrappy but we are building from here,” Luai said. “I know we will be a different team. We made history and big props to our people back home.”