By Kumari Tilakawardane
'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players,' wrote Shakespeare. Former drama-student Daniel Biggar was a player on one of the biggest and most magnificent stages in world rugby on Friday when he lined up at fly-half against Samoa. Biggar, winning his fourth cap, came up against Fa'atonu Fili, whose impressive form for Wellington in the Air New Zealand cup helped him force his way back into the Samoa side, to win his third cap. With relatively inexperienced men from either team calling the shots and a Friday 13th kick off would stage fright prove the deciding factor?
The atmosphere before the match buzzed with youthful excitement. 700 pupils from Biggar's former school Gowerton Comprehensive were in fine voice, screaming as their heroes jogged past them in the warm up. The massive impact rugby has on Welsh culture was demonstrated by the Great Entertainer himself - Shane Williams. Not even in the match-day 22, he was met with a deafening roar of approval while catching a ball in the warm up.
This proved the power of rugby for Welsh kids. But nothing put the trivialities of sport into perspective more than September 29th's tsunami which ravaged the Pacific Islands, with Samoa being among the very worst hit. More than 100 people were killed, and every member of the Samoa rugby squad was affected personally. Preparation for this tour was put on hold for a fortnight as the team focused on rebuilding their home and picking up the pieces.
The squad have come through this very personal tragedy together and lined up against Wales on Friday prepared to throw everything into the match. The Samoans' brotherhood and team-spirit could be seen in the absolute fluidity and uniformity of their movements as they performed their Haka, each player melting effortlessly into the team's blue wave.
Wales received the kick-off from Samoa, and were immediately besieged by the Pacific islanders, renowned the world over for ferocious tackling. Despite the physicality of the opposition, Wales soon showed their penchant for running rugby. Biggar managed to find space in the midfield and gave an indication of what was to come. Returning scrum-half for Wales Dwayne Peel was flattened by a late tackle and the resulting penalty was neatly slotted by the Welsh 10, sending the 59,000 strong crowd into a frenzy. Fili scored a penalty of his own to level the scores at 3-3.
The potential volatility of the match was shown when Peel, one of the smallest players on the park squared up to the big Samoan winger Anitelea Tuilagi and wrestled the ball from him for a Wales line-out.
What resulted from this would turn out to be the home side's only try. Biggar aimed a neat little cross kick into the corner and Leigh Halfpenny showed superb finishing skills to take a catch in the air and then dive over the line to score the first try of the match. Biggar just missed the conversion from the touchline.
The intensity of the game never seemed to slow, as the Samoan forwards flooded every breakdown and both sides exchanged some bone-crunching tackles.
Wales then spent a sustained period in Samoa's half; however despite this and many chances created the opportunities could not be taken and in the end the home side had to make do with a penalty from the boot of Biggar to take Wales into an 11-3 lead.
Continuing in the same vein as the previous week, Gethin Jenkins was seemingly everywhere on the field and was frequently found to be the first Welsh player to the breakdown. His silky hands released Wales on a number of occasions, starting off some sublime training-ground moves that were frustratingly extinguished by dropped passes, fumbles and a ferocious Samoan defence. Sam Warburton, appearing on the open-side flank for Wales to win his second cap, broke through the first line of defence in one of the prime scoring opportunities in the half, but his pop-up from the ground found only Samoan hands and the move ended.
Exasperating play such as this dogged the game, with Wales creating numerous opportunities and converting few.
Samoan Number 8 Henry Tuilagi caused Wales quite a few headaches for the duration of the game, with powerful, busting runs and devastating hand-offs. The platform he set for his backs allowed them to attack from the front foot, and Samoa created several exciting chances, particularly through outside centre Gavin Williams. One of the more promising Samoan opportunities came with ten minutes left in the half, when Henry Tuilagi smashed through several would-be Welsh tacklers from the half-way line to take play into the Welsh half.
Fortunately from Wales' point of view the move was stopped by some strong tackles, however a penalty was conceded. Fili failed to convert this kick and the home side were lucky to come away from that attack unscathed. Wales should really have more points on the board at this point, particularly given the amount of territory, possession and opportunities created they had.
Five minutes later Wales conceded yet another penalty, this time scored by Fili, bringing Samoa back into the game at 11-6. This seemed to be the jolt Wales needed to step up their game, and a brilliant punt from full-back James Hook from his own half bounced into touch just in front of the Samoa goal-line. However the clinical finishing still wasn't there and this chance was cleared away by Samoa. By the end of the half there was a general air of frustration, as neither team seemed to have that final touch to finish off many promising moves. It was clearly getting to the players on the field too, as Biggar took his eyes off the ball and fumbled it - luckily his Gowerton School support club were all leaving for the interval at that moment.
The second half opened with the announcement that Halfpenny had been voted 'Hero of the Half'. The second period seemed to start better for Wales, as winger Tom James came into major play for the first time in the match. Strong running against the big-hitting Samoan team led to a penalty to Wales on the halfway line, which hero Halfpenny duly kicked, taking Wales to 8 points ahead.
Suddenly however the balance seemed to shift in favour of the visitors, as Wales fell off tackles to allow Samoa to reach their try-line, where only captain Ryan Jones' touch down prevented a Samoan try.
The game soon because scrappy, with the structure not quite clicking for either team. Hard-hitting Wales centre Tom Shanklin was taken off the field with a suspected broken nose and was replaced by another youngster - Scarlets' Jonathan Davies, winning his third cap. Davies and James seemed to spark something in the Welsh backline and more chances to threaten the Samoa defence were created.
The most promising yet frustrating move started when Davies straightened up and ran hard at the Samoans, playing them at their own game. Quick hands from the backs outside him released Hook down the touchline, breaking past several tacklers. Almost in a repeat of Alun Wyn Jones' break from the New Zealand match Hook seemed to be caught in two minds, and perhaps the pass should have gone to Halfpenny, who was supporting on the inside. The ball was spilled by Hook in a last-ditch tackle from Samoa, creating even more frustration for the Welsh management team.
What should have been the turning point in the game came when Anitelea Tuilagi left the field injured. Wales turned the ball over in a subsequent ruck and great running lines from the backs saw a Davies half-break. Close support from Jenkins resulted in what was given as a knock on, but the move suggested to the desperate crowd that perhaps there were a few more tries left in the Welsh team. It looked promising with Peel returning to his old form and dummying to half break through a tackle, but the resulting offload to Warburton was unluckily knocked on. Chance after golden chance were being squandered, with Wales just not being clinical enough.
With 20 minutes left in the game it was really now or never, and a captain's drive from Ryan Jones into the Samoa 22 set the platform. Solid rucking against the strong Samoa pack gradually edged Wales forwards, and the ball was whipped out to the backs with the try line in their sights. But, in the cruellest turn of fate a Biggar pass was intercepted, and London Irish centre Seilala Mapusua cantered from his own 22 to score a try for Samoa. Had the pass got to James it would have almost certainly been a Welsh try, but as it was it was scored at the other end - in a fateful twist Shakespeare himself would have been proud of the best Welsh attacking move of the half was turned into a try for the opposition. The conversion was scored, bringing Samoa to within a try of Wales at 17-13.
The scrum had been one of the strongest parts of Samoa's game and the substitutions of Wales forwards Huw Bennett and Paul James for Matthew Rees and Craig Mitchell, playing just his third match for Wales, did nothing to relieve the pressure. The final ten minutes of the game were nerve-wracking for everyone in the ground, as impressive Samoan scrum-half Junior Poluleuligaga slipped a grubber kick through for Mapusua to chase, who was beaten by the ball just hitting the touch line. Play was then camped on the Welsh try-line, and it was heart-in-mouth stuff as every Welsh player put his body on the line in desperation to save the match.
Wales managed to clear the line, but a high ball in the Welsh 22 resulted in a Samoan penalty, with Hook unlucky after seeming to be taken out in the air. The penalty looked to be straightforward, and seemed as though it would take Samoa to within a point with just minutes remaining. Williams sliced the kick and it flew just wide of the uprights. The disbelieving and relieved roar of the crowd after this kick gave away the tale of the match.
Samoa still threatened the Welsh line however, and it seemed as though luck was firmly on their side as Hook lost a ball over the try-line in defence and a certain try was only prevented by Halfpenny racing back to touch the ball down.
Tired bodies littered the field but Samoa were in the hunt. Somehow, a strong stand from the Welsh pack and a great turnover from captain Jones allowed the ball eventually to be hoofed down field by Peel.
With just two minutes left in play Samoa tried a counter attack from their own 22, which was stopped by brave Welsh defence at the death. A turnover saw Andy Powell kick just beyond the Samoa defence, but the ball crept past the dead ball line, completing the frustration of the whole match for Wales.
The cheer that went up at the final whistle was as much for Samoa as it was for the creative Welsh play - it was almost a fairytale story as the Pacific islanders almost stole the game. The peaceful circle Samoa formed for their post-match prayer was a distinct contrast to the aggressive, abrasive style of rugby they had played throughout. The visitors' lap of was roundly applauded by Welsh fans.
The post-match feeling of the management team was once again that Wales hadn't been clinical and ruthless enough when it counted. But Warren Gatland highlighted that there were many positives to take from the game, notably the development of several younger players and he singled out Jon Davies and Tom James in particular as stand-out players.
Assistant coach Shaun Edwards talked of the defence as something to work on with next week's Argentina game in mind, and called for more attacking defence from Wales.
Samoa, renowned for being big-hitters certainly proved a physical challenge but Ryan Jones insisted that all test matches at international level are physical, and it was perhaps just the finishing that let several Wales chances slip by. He praised his players' work ethic and courage, saying that they would have to dig in deep and work on the negatives this coming week in training.
Similarly, Welsh players seemed to echo their coaches, saying that it was a lack of clinical finishing and ruthlessness that limited the Welsh game. With the emphasis of the game very much on the development of younger players, Warburton and Davies were perhaps thrust onto the big stage in this match. Both called the game a tough step up, and praised the aggressive play from Samoa.
A tense, rapid game saw Wales pushed right to the death by Samoa. Gatland's policy of developing players for the future of Welsh rugby saw young talents in Biggar, Warburton and Davies being given chances to prove themselves on world rugby's stage. A promising display from Wales, but players and coaches alike acknowledged that it doesn't get any easier with Argentina next week and that there will need to be some questions asked in training this week to iron out the little missing touches.
Shakespeare also once wrote 'Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.' With a little more experience the young players who battled against Samoa will indeed achieve greatness.