Manusina head coach Ramsey Tomokino says getting to Rugby World Cup 2021 will be “hugely important” for the development of women’s rugby in Samoa.

Samoa face Tonga on Saturday for the right to play in the four-team Final Qualification Tournament that will decide the 12th and final participant at next year’s tournament in New Zealand.

The final game of the revised Oceania regional qualification process was due to take place in Apia back in April, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will now be played on neutral territory at the Trusts Arena in Auckland.

Auckland is one of RWC 2021’s host cities, and the venue for the draw on 20 November. Samoa are desperate to return there and showcase their talent to the large Samoan diaspora in the North Island city as well as the people back home.

“It is hugely important for Samoa, with more games on the radar for Manusina and more broadcasts to the local villages, some of the families will be more understanding of the importance of their daughters and nieces wanting to play rugby,” said Tomokino.

“In terms of attracting players to us like our men's team around the globe, we want women to realise you can have the same exposure to international rugby that they see other countries exposed to.

“We want to be able to play the Black Ferns and the Wallaroos, and if we can get access to our best players, I believe we can be competitive.

“Our team getting to the Rugby World Cup will be a bucket list item for our players and certainly an experience our management team would relish.

“How great would it be for the region to have (first-time qualifiers) Fijiana and one of Manusina or Tonga represented? Naturally, we want the other Pacific team to be Samoa.”

Developing new talent

Unable to call upon any talent from back home in Samoa for this crunch encounter, Tomokino has instead selected his squad from a group of 60 New Zealand-based players.

The recent Farah Palmer Cup has been a blessing in that it has given his players much-sought-after game time. But the competition came at a cost as Tomokino’s daughter and Samoa’s main lineout operator, Taylah Hodson-Tomokino, picked up an injury.

“Given the current climate, our preparations have gone as best as they can,” he reflected.

“What will hurt us most is the players we can't bring to New Zealand; we are without key players from Samoa, Australia, USA and parts of Asia.

“However we have to also look at the opportunity that provides for us to grow and develop more Manusina players.”

Thanks to World Rugby investment, the Samoa Rugby Union were able to send Manusina to New Plymouth for a training camp and a warm-up fixture against Farah Palmer Cup Northern League outfit, Taranaki Whio.

“We are grateful to the Taranaki Whio team and coach La Toya Mason for being able to accommodate us and giving us a match after a tough season for them,” Tomokino said.

“As a result, we are hoping to establish a pathway for our players to possibly integrate into the Taranaki system as well as provide an opportunity for our Island-based players.”

Milestone match for Tonga

Samoa’s last experience of Rugby World Cup was in 2014. At that stage, Tonga had only played two women’s tests, both were in 2006 and saw the side concede a half-century of points, including a 60-5 loss to Saturday’s opponents.

“Out of all our Pacific (contenders), Samoa and Fiji, we're the newbies because we've only been in this game for a little while, so this is definitely a big thing for Tonga... it's a milestone,” acknowledged Tonga assistant coach, Sione Pulu.

“We haven't been in the playing system for too long but getting to this point has been something worth celebrating.”

Tonga played Samoa again in 2018 and the result was equally one-sided, 62-26 to Manusina.

“Off the top of my head, we will have seven players from that match,” revealed Tomokino. 

“That was our first campaign after being absent from international 15s rugby since RWC 2014; we had 23 debutants out of a squad of 26.

“In fact, we have debuted 47 players in our three campaigns since 2018.

“We obviously want to stem that tide and build continuity, but the current climate will mean more debuts for this match.”

Having played 31 tests since their introduction to women’s international rugby in 2000, Samoa have far greater test match experience.

And Pulu knows his Tongan team, who got this far with victory over Papua New Guinea, will have to be at their best to keep their interest in Rugby World Cup 2021 alive.

“We're expecting a really big game. Manusina has been here before more times than we have, and we look at Manusina as being a worthy opponent for us. Being our Pacific sisters, they will definitely be ready for us, so we've got to bring our best game.”

Centuries-old rivalry

It is two weeks to the one-year anniversary of Fijiana clinching direct qualification to RWC 2021 at Samoa’s expense through the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship.

Samoa have not played since then and Tomokino insists his team will be sufficiently fired up despite starting the game as overwhelming favourites.

“We let ourselves down in our last campaign in not getting the desired result we were after. It means we have to go the long way round to a goal we desire, and that's not a bad thing, it does allow us to grow as a team.

“We are well aware of the threat that any Tongan sporting team can bring, we know they will be up for the challenge, and they have some very good athletes.

“They are also predominantly Auckland-based, so we are expecting that they will be more cohesive as our players are spread around New Zealand.

“Any Samoa versus Tonga battle is a great battle and a rivalry that is centuries of years old.

“We will be working hard and going out there to put our best game we can forward.”

Read more: Fijiana out to make waves at Rugby World Cup 2021 >>

Photo: Oceania Rugby