Written by Tony Smith for Stuff.co.nz
The Canterbury Bulls are buzzing ahead of the greatest challenge of their careers against a Samoa national team brimming with NRL stars such as Manly’s ex-Kiwis prop Marty Taupau.
Toa Samoa plays the Bulls at Christchurch’s Nga Puna Wai stadium on Friday night in a warm-up to their Oceania Cup clash with Fiji at Eden Park.
Canterbury coach Andrew Auimatagi said it would be the biggest game most of the Bulls would play and was particularly exciting for nine Bulls players “and myself” with Samoan heritage.
Bulls centre Matt Sauni, who was born in Christchurch but grew up embracing his Samoan culture, can’t wait to get a chance to tackle a team containing Taupau and other NRL regulars such as Canberra Raiders grand final centre Joey Leilua, Dragons centre Tim Lafai, Manly wing Jorge Taufua, Warriors prop Bunty Afoa and New Zealand-born Newcastle Knights Danny Levi and James Gavet.
“It’s really good to play against a team that you’ve always wanted to play for, but there will definitely be mixed emotions,” Sauni said.
“They will definitely test us out, mentally and physically.
Many visiting players were in the Samoa squad which made the semifinals at last weekend’s World Cup Nines tournament in Sydney.
Sauni said it was an honour to play against a team “stacked with NRL players”.
The 28-year-old is joined in the Bulls squad by his brother Erwin, with brothers Jiordan and Thoren Fidow-Kele, Danny Latu, Caius Fa’atali, Ben Ilalio, Roger Tafua and Alani Kakoi other players with Samoan heritage.
Fa’atali, a Year 13 student at St Thomas of Canterbury College got a chance to see Taupau and some of teammates first-hand on Thursday morning when a Toa Samoa contingent visited his school, where coach Auimatagi teaches.
“It’s really special just to have the Samoan players in Christchurch,” Auimatagi said.
“Like I said to our boys, ‘they are probably the first Samoan rugby or league team to play in Christchurch, so you are part of history’.
“Our families are all very proud.”
The Bulls lost the national provincial premiership grand final after finishing the round robin with three wins to earn a home final, and they also beat a touring New South Wales Country team 17-16 after a late field goal by loose forward Michael Butson.
Auimatagi has total faith in the character of his team, but admits it will be a step up against a Samoan side comprising fulltime professionals.
“It’s just the fact it’s their job and their bodies are well used to the physical demands [of the NRL]. Rugby league is a simple game, but they are just used to playing at a higher intensity.
“Our guys need to do their best and do the simple things well and try and stay with them and maybe surprise them a few times.”
While the odds are heavily weighted in favour of Samoa, Auimatagi said the Bulls could draw inspiration from one of their own. Canterbury co-captain Tevin Arona was part of a Cook Islands team which upset Tonga at last weekend’s World Cup Nines.
Auimatagi has also reminded his players that “Lebanon beat England, so it cn be done”.
Arona was “pretty banged up” with a sore shoulder after the Nines tournament and may have to be managed carefully against Samoa. He is one of six Bulls in the New Zealand Residents team, coached by Auimatagi, which will play an England XIII in Auckland next Friday.
The Samoan team are coached by former NRL players Matt Parish and Geoff Toovey.
Canterbury Rugby League chief executive Duane Fyfe said Samoa were the first international team to play Canterbury for 15 years, since Russia in 2004.
“A South Island selection played France a few years before that.”
Canterbury has had success against international teams in the past, beating France 24-12 in 1955 and Great Britain 18-10 in 1990.
AT A GLANCE
Canterbury Bulls v Toa Samoa
When: 7.30pm, Friday
Where: Nga Puna Wai, Christchurch.
CANTERBURY BULLS: Jordan Coleman, Ben Ilalio, Matt Sauni, Jope Tagicakibau, Regan Stanton, Tevin Arona (co-capt), Brad Campbell, Alex Todd (co-capt), Alani Kakoi, Jiordan Fidow-Kele, Danny Latu, Caius Fa’atili, Michael Butson. Interchange (from): Justin Lynch, Thoren Fidow-Kele, David Tongo Tongo, James Baxendale, Vinnie Paul, Erwin Sauni, Roger Tafua, Rangi Thompson. Coaches: Andrew Auimatagi, Jed Lawrie, Jamie Lester.
TOA SAMOA: Tim Lafai, Joey Leilua, Jorge Taufua, Brian Too, Jarome Luai, Danny Levi, Lalotoa Mata’afa, Marion Seve, Junior Paulo, Dunamis Lui, Marty Taupau, Moses Leota Luciano Leilua, James Gavet, Bunty Afoa, Michael Chee Kam, Ligi Sao. Coaches: Matt Parish, Geoff Toovey. Coaches: Matt Parish and Geoff Toovey.