Ricky’s View: Greatest Samoan Team

Francis Meli

We had the best Fijian side named in our view and now, we turn our attention to another Island nation. Samoa. Blessed with some remarkably talented players throughout their history of rugby league, many currently play in the NRL and overseas, all full of talent. Just who will make the cut in this team and will there be any modern players selected or will it be the retired brigade of players? Time will tell.

Here is what we believe to be the best Samoan rugby league side across their history:

1. Tangi Ropati – A World Cup stint led to the first major opportunity for Ropati and it was one that he took with both hands. That opportunity came with the Sheffield Eagles back in 2009, where he enjoyed decent success with the team and scoring a good number of tries over his two seasons there. That led to a move to Widnes for the utility back and although he only spent one season at the club, it was fairly productive. Perhaps the club where he was revered the most and the club where he was the most productive was during a 1-year stint with the Featherstone Rovers. 16 tries in 16 games, not a bad strike rate. After that, he was in the New Zealand Warriors NSW Cup side for a couple of years, before opting to play in the local New Zealand rugby league competition for the Akarana Falcons. Over the course of three years, he played for Samoa seven times in a World Cup and numerous Pacific Tests.

2. Sam Panapa – One of the best players to have donned a Samoan jersey, Panapa enjoyed success as a player wherever he went. The bulk of his success came during a successful era in the 90’s with the Wigan Warriors. Starting out as a junior for the Te Atatu Roosters in the local Auckland rugby league competition, Panapa’s skill and development were on show and it was a matter of time before a club came knocking to sign him. That first club was the Sheffield Eagles. His first stint with the club was not great and that led to a return to his junior club for some years. Fast forward 6 years into the future at that time and Panapa rejoined the Eagles, this time enjoying more success. In 24 games for the club, he scored 14 tries. His greatest successes came during a four year stint with the Wigan Warriors. During his time at Wigan, Panapa won two World Club Challenges and numerous Super League titles, playing in a total of of 119 games for the club. He then moved onto the Salford Reds and helped them gain promotion into the Super League, after a grand final win against the Keighley Cougars in 1994.

3. Anthony Swann – Capping off his career with several World Cup appearances for Samoa in 2000, Anthony Swann is a player that the Samoan fans would know well. Starting out his career for the Waitakere City Raiders in the Lion Red Cup in 1994, he went on to have some success with numerous NRL sides and overseas rugby league sides. His first major foray into the rugby league landscape came in 1996, when he was signed up by the then Auckland Warriors side. His form over those three years and his subsequent 36 games in total, saw him represent New Zealand on a few occasions, but Samoa is where his heart was. After a short stint with the North Sydney Bears in 1999 and then a couple of seasons at the Canberra Raiders, he joined the Warrington Wolves in 2001 but with limited success. The centre then ventured into the world of rugby union where he played for the Bay of Plenty Streamers and had some success. He then returned to rugby league, this time in the Bartercard Cup, and played for the Mt Albert Lions as well as the Auckland representative side.

4. Francis Meli – Revered and loved no matter where he went, Francis Meli was all about the longevity as he took pride in playing for a particular club for as long as possible. From the NZ region of Titirangi, Meli was approached to join the New Zealand Warriors after an impressive stint with the Marist Saints in the Auckland Rugby League competition. His time at the Warriors spanned 8 years, to which Meli played in 110 games for the club and scoring 63 tries in the process. At the time, a feeder arrangement by the Warriors meant that Meli played for Brisbane Souths on a few occasions. In 2000, he represented Samoa at the World Cup before changing his allegiance to the Kiwis. 2002 saw Meli and the Warriors side make the grand final, although they lost the game. In 2003, Meli scored a club record 23 tries in a season, 5 of which came in a finals game against the Canterbury Bulldogs. To this day, that is still the record for most tries in a finals game by one player. To cap off the 2003 season, Meli was then named the Warriors’ Player of the Year. Come 2006, a move to the Super League beckoned and the winger/centre joined St Helens. His time with the Saints was filled with numerous championships and cup wins including the 2006 Challenge Cup Final win, the 2006 Super League grand final, the 2007 World Club Challenge and two further Challenge Cup wins. All of that came in his first three years at the club. Representing Samoa once more at another World Cup in 2008 and in the 2009 Pacific Cup, Meli finished his club career with the Salford Devils, playing with them for one season.

5. Misi Taulapapa – Most of his success as a rugby league player has come outside of Australia but if rugby league fans cast their minds back to 2006-2009, they will remember Misi Taulapapa in Australian rugby league circles. He had two short stints spanning four years in total, one with the New Zealand Warriors – playing just 5 games in 2006 – and the other with the Cronulla Sharks, where he played 33 games over a period of three years.
Originally a rugby union player from the Waitemata Football Club in New Zealand, he was a part of the winning Gallagher Shield team in 2003 and was also a member of the Kelston Boys High School XV side. 2004 was when the foray into league began for Taulapapa when he joined the Marist Richmond Brothers in the Bartercard Cup, which then led to being signed by the Warriors. It was not all smooth sailing, though – rather the opposite, in fact – with Taulapapa then let go by the club after playing just 6 games due to turning up to training intoxicated. That led to a move to the Cronulla Sharks where he established himself as a solid fringe utility back, playing a total of 33 games and scoring 7 tries over a 3-year stint with the club.
After those somewhat turbulent stints in the NRL, Taulapapa found a home, signing with the Sheffield Eagles in 2010. Initially, Taulapapa could have been headed to the then Gateshead Thunder, but financial difficulties on their part effectively ruled out a move to the club. A versatile player throughout his career – covering fullback, wing and centre – Taulapapa also has captaincy honours to his name, having been named captain for certain periods during his current lengthy stint with the Eagles. Taulapapa was a member of the Samoan World Cup side in 2008 and also represented Samoa in the 2009 Pacific Cup.

6. Smith Samau – Enjoying the bulk of his success as a Central Queensland Capras player, there was a time where Smith Samau could have played more NRL games, only to be shifted around to accommodate another player staying with the club. 2006 was the year that could have been for Samau after he was named to play in his debut NRL game with the Melbourne Storm but at the end of the year, in a bid to retain then winger Steve Turner, the Storm let Samau go and he signed with the Gold Coast Titans. When he was not playing for the Storm in 2006, Samau was a member of the Norths Devils side, a team in the Queensland Cup. That move to the Titans led to a further 10 first-grade games, eight of which came in 2007, as well as stints for the Ipswich Jets, also in the Queensland Cup. 2009 saw a move to the Roosters, though Samau did not play first-grade at the club and that culminated in a return to the Ipswich Jets for the 2010 season. After that, Samau moved to the Capras side where he has enjoyed individual success as a player, even if the team themselves have not always performed. For Samoa, Samau was awarded with 9 caps over two years, representing Samoa in both the 2008 World Cup and other Test matches over a span of three years.

7. John Schuster – One of Samoa’s greatest dual internationals, it was all about the rugby union for John Schuster growing up. Coming from a prominent rugby union family in Wellington, Schuster first played for Western Samoa in 1986. It was not until 1988 that Schuster made his debut for the All Blacks during the Bledisloe Cup and over the course of his rugby union career, he played in 10 Tests for the All Blacks. There was an exodus of players from rugby union in 1990 with Schuster one of the individuals to leave. This paved the way for a move to rugby league and it was the Newcastle Knights who pounced on the back-rower/five-eighth. He had some solid success at the Knights over the three years he was at the club, scoring 41 tries and kicking 101 goals, for a total of 266 points. He set two early records – they were later beaten by Andrew Johns – that included highest number of career points for the Knights and most points in a season. After spending much of 1993 in reserve grade, Schuster wanted and needed change, and English side Halifax came knocking. Playing there for five years, by the time his career with the club had ended, he had scored more than 1000 points – the result of 50 tries, 399 goals and five field goals. It was during the 1995 World Cup when Schuster became a dual international and his talents were on show to the rugby league arena. In the tournament, he scored 22 points, all goals. There was a return to Union once more for Schuster and he played for Harlequins for a couple of seasons, resulting in an international stint for Samoa at the 1999 Rugby World Cup where he scored 17 points.

8. Leeson Ah Mau – Currently enjoying a successful stint with the St George Illawarra Dragons, life in rugby league started in New Zealand for Leeson Ah Mau. Playing for the Papatoetoe Panthers and Otahuhu in the Auckland Rugby League competition, it was no surprise to see Ah Mau signed on a development contract with the New Zealand Warriors in 2007. He played for the Junior Kiwis in 2006 and the New Zealand U18’s side in 2007, and was a part of the inaugural New Zealand Warriors Holden Cup side in 2008, making 22 appearances for the Warriors in the competition. Right off the bat in 2009, Ah Mau was thrust into the firing line and made his NRL debut for the Warriors. The joy did not last long unfortunately, given that after just 2 games into his career, he injured his hamstring and did not play for the Warriors again. This led to him leaving the club and he ended up heading North to play for the North Queensland Cowboys. Ah Mau’s first career try came for the Cowboys and after playing in 18 games and scoring a try in his first season, Ah Mau was named as the Cowboys’ Rookie of the Year in 2010. Finishing up at the Cowboys in 2011 after a further 15 appearances for them, a new move beckoned for Ah Mau and he headed back towards Sydney when he signed with the Dragons. He has not left since that time and has become a mainstay forward in their side for the last couple of seasons. With a total of 9 Tests played for Samoa throughout his career so far, he has played in both a World Cup and numerous Pacific Tests during that time.

9. Pita Godinet – The path to rugby league success was not always a smooth one for Godinet and if he was not biding his time for a first-grade opportunity, he was in and out of the side regularly for varying reasons. Godinet’s career started in the Bartercard Cup in 2007 for the Waitakere Rangers, before he moved to rival side Auckland for the 2008 competition. During that time, he also played for the then Auckland Vulcans in the NSW Cup and was named Rookie of the Year for the club. In 2010, he moved to the Te Atatu Roosters, played for Auckland in the Albert Baskerville Trophy and played for the Auckland Vulcans on numerous occasions, playing well enough to be named in the NSW Cup Team of the Year for 2010. Late in 2010, the first major step came when Godinet was signed in an official capacity by the New Zealand Warriors for training purposes, before it was extended to a formal contract in early 2011. After making his debut in Rd 11, he put the Warriors fans on notice and showed that he has some skills, scoring on his debut. Despite that impressive showing first-up, Godinet only managed 18 games for the Warriors across three seasons and in search of greener pastures, he joined the Wakefield Wildcats from the 2014 season. In regards to his Samoan playing career, his first opportunity came in 2010 when Ben Roberts was injured and again, he excelled on debut, scoring the side’s only try. Godinet also represented Samoa at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.

10. Tony Tuimavave – One of the older members of the Tuimavave family, it was Tony who paved the way for the family name to continue in the rugby league world. Starting out locally in the Auckland Comp, for a long while, the name Tony Tuimavave was an unknown one in rugby league circles. He played for both the Northcote Tigers and the Mt Albert Lions in the local Auckland Competition and played in 30 matches for the Auckland province over a 7-year period. The semi-big break came in 1991 when he was signed by the Sheffield Eagles, where he stayed for two seasons before he returned to Auckland. That led to a stint for the Waitakere City side, before he finally got the biggest break of all, a stint with the New Zealand Warriors. Joining the then Auckland Warriors in 1995, he remained a crucial part of their side for the duration of his time there – until 2000 – and he was the last member of the inaugural Auckland Warriors side to leave the club. For Samoa, Tuimavave played in the 1990 Pacific Cup, the 1992 Pacific Cup and the 1995 Rugby League World Cup. Right now, he coaches local New Zealand rugby league side, the Ponsonby Ponies.

11. Frank Puletua – A fan favourite during his many years at the Penrith Panthers, Frank Puletua donned the Samoan jersey with pride. A junior out in Western Sydney with the St Mary’s Saints, the Penrith Panthers picked him up as a young player and he made an early debut at just 20 years old in 1998. His first experience with the Samoan side came in 2000, when he was selected in their World Cup squad. Playing in four seasons for the Panthers to begin his career, he moved away from the club to sign with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Two years at the Bunnies followed before he returned to the Penrith Panthers, where he forged a long-standing, positive relationship with the fans. Over the next eight years, he became an integral part of the Panthers line-up and was a committed player to the tee, never giving an inch. Overall, he played for Samoa a total of 7 times and was named in the 2008 Samoa training squad for the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.

12. Philip Leuluai – A modern-day veteran of Samoan rugby league, Leuluai was actually born in New Zealand but had Samoan heritage in his blood. Starting out in NZ as a local junior with the Otahuhu Leopards, he also had stints with the Eastern Tornadoes – another Bartercard Cup side – and with the Newtown Jets, before an opportunity arose to represent the Cronulla Sharks. That opportunity was preceded by an appearance for Auckland in the 1997 Super League Challenge Cup and appearances for Auckland South in the 1999 Super Provincial Competition. He toured Australia with the New Zealand Residents side in 2000, as well as touring France and the USA with the New Zealand A side. A prop or back-rower by trade, Leuluai spent three years at the Sharks from 2005-2007 where he played 30 games, before he moved to the other side of the world to play with the then Salford Reds. Over a four year period at Salford, he played 40 games, before he moved to France to play with highly rated French side, the Lezignan Sangliers. In 2008, Leuluai was named as a part of the Samoan training squad for the World Cup but did not make the team. He did however make the 2009 Pacific Cup squad.

13. Harrison Hansen – An Auckland boy through and through, Hansen has enjoyed success as a player throughout his career so far. Now considered a veteran having made his debut way back in 2004 at just 19, the bulk of his success came during a successful stint at the Wigan Warriors. Life for Hansen in rugby league started at Folly Lane ARLFC, where the son of ex-Salford and Swinton professional Shane Hansen plied his trade. Interestingly, Hansen is of Samoan, Chinese and Scottish descent and after impressing in Wigan’s academy set-up at a young age, he was rewarded with a two-year deal in mid-2003. The icing on the cake for Hansen came in 2004 when he was selected to make his Super League debut with the club and his game-time only increased from there, after several departures ahead of the 2005 season. During his time at the Warriors, Hansen won numerous trophies including two Super League grand finals and two Challenge Cups. His time at Wigan came to an end after 10 years and with it, came a move to the Salford Devils. The eligibility of Hansen is an interesting one to monitor. Having played for the English youth team to begin with, Hansen was then named in a Test for New Zealand. Soon after, he changed his allegiance to Samoa and he made his debut for the Pacific nation in 2007. That was followed by appearances at the 2008 World Cup and the 2009 Pacific Test. He was named in the Samoan 2013 World Cup squad as captain but was forced to withdraw because of injury.

14. David Solomona – A cult figure wherever he went, David Solomona forged a career in rugby league through hard work and a trademark offload. Attending St Paul’s College in Auckland as a young player, wherever Solomona played, he was always among the top offloaders at his clubs. His professional career began with the Sydney Roosters, signing with them for the 1999 season. After two years and 21 games at the club, a move to the Parramatta Eels beckoned where he arguably, forged his cult hero status. Revered and loved by the Eels fans, he lost his second consecutive grand final in 2001 – the first coming in 2000 whilst at the Roosters. After four seasons with the Eels and 57 games played in total, he moved to the Wakefield Wildcats and helped them stay in the Super League. After that, he moved onto the Bradford Bulls and enjoyed some success there has both a ball-runner and a ball-player and again, maintained his cult hero status. The last team he played for was the Warrington Wolves and he was a part of the club’s 2010 Challenge Cup success. Although Solomona represented New Zealand as well as Samoa and winning a Tri-Nations series in the process, he had the honour of representing Samoa at two different World Cups, most recently in 2008.

15. Apollo Perelini – A Samoan dual international, Apollo Perelini was everywhere in both rugby league and rugby union throughout the course of his career. Related to Australian soccer star Tim Cahill, it was rugby union that first piqued Apollo’s interest. He represented Samoa in the 1991 Rugby World Cup and a few years later, an offer from rugby league came his way. He rejected it first but then accepted the overtures of St Helens and opted to sign with them in 1995. In the same year, he represented Samoa at the 1995 Rugby League World Cup and became the first Samoan dual international. Perelini found immediate success at St Helens in 1996 as helped the side to a Challenge Cup victory. The icing on the cake came when he was named in the Super League Dream Team of the Year at prop. Further success came in 1999 when he helped St Helens win the Super League grand final and again in the year 2000 when the Saints again won the Super League grand final. After much success at St Helens and at age 33, Perelini sought a move back to union with the Sale Sharks. In total, Perelini won four Challenge Cups and two Super League titles.

16. Matt Utai – Born and raised in Auckland, the Berala Bears were the first club that Matt Utai called home, playing his junior footy there. He came through the Canterbury Bulldogs developmental squads and emerged through the ranks in the then Jersey Flegg competition as well as reserve grade. In that year, Utai was a part of the winning reserve grade. The big opportunity came soon after when Utai was named to make his NRL debut in 2002. Named Dally M Rookie of the Year after a quality season after scoring 13 tries in 21 games, it was tarnished as the club did not play finals footy in 2002 due to salary cap breaches. 2003 came along and Utai was in even greater form, scoring 21 tries in 27 games including a hat-trick in three straight games. In 2004, the ultimate success arrived when Utai was a part of the Bulldogs grand final winning side. He continued to perform for the Dogs over the years but was demoted to the NSW Cup playing for Bankstown. He became the only Bulldogs player to win five premierships across all grades after Bankstown’s win. He was then set to sign for the now defunct Crusaders side but failed a fitness test because of a knee injury and instead joined Group 9 side, the Young Cherrypickers. Following that, he joined the Auburn Warriors before the Wests Tigers came calling and signed him up for a few seasons. He played in 40 games and scored 14 tries during that period before being released, rejoining the Auburn Warriors. Utai’s representative games for Samoa came during the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.

17. Vila Matautia – A hulking Samoan forward, there was always success destined for Matautia as he developed into a quality player. After an early stint with Doncaster RLFC, a move to St Helens was on the cards and it was this move that shaped Matautia’s career. Playing at the club for seven years, he was a part of the team’s winning Super League season in 1996. He played off the bench in their 1999 Challenge Cup victory and was again part of the Saints winning 2000 premiership season. Additionally, he also won the World Club Challenge with St Helens in 2001 and had the opportunity to represent Samoa at the 1995 World Cup.

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