28 June, 2010

From Taxi Rank to World Summit

Samoa’s champion Sevens team is doing far more than just winning titles, Jon Geddes discovers

THEY are the struggling rugby team made up of taxi drivers and village farmers which has revitalised the small Pacific nation of Samoa and given its people new hope following the massive devastation wreaked by last Septembers deadly tsunami.

The giant-killing Samoan sevens side has had such an impact after being crowned 2010 world champions that Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi declared a public holiday last Monday to honour the playersachievements.

And 5000 fans descended on Faleolo International Airport at 1am to give the team a heros welcome home.

The joyous scenes across Samoa are in stark contrast to the heartbreaking images of human tragedy nine months ago when the natural disaster killed 143 people and flattened entire villages.

Mr Malielegaoi told Footy Central the teams triumph had boosted the whole country as it continues to rebuild after the tsunami.

‘‘ I am very proud we have been able to achieve this distinction,’’ Mr Malielegaoi said. ‘‘But what is more important is the incentive that it will create for our young sportsmen to try to emulate the successes which these boys have been able to achieve.’’

He said the teams victory was the greatest sporting moment for a country with just 193,000 people.

The rugby minnows — crowned the kings of sevens over heavyweights such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England — consist of part-timers who are now back earning their livings in the towns and villages around Samoa. Some of them arrived in their cabs for the welcome home press conference.

‘‘ Most of them are amateurs, but when it comes to rugby the six weeks before they leave they are really committed to the task ahead,’’ coach Stephen Betham said.

As a reward for topping the IRB world rankings, the players will each receive $9410 from the Government and sponsors. Captain Lolo Lui suggested he would rather the PM gave them some land.

The squad was in Rotorua preparing for the South Pacific Games when news came through that the tsunami had hit. It has provided them with extra motivation ever since.

‘‘ That played in the back of their minds,’’ Betham said.

‘‘ That really spurred us to win the gold medal and it carried on from there. The boys have done it for the nation.’’

After arriving in Samoa, the players went to a special section of the airport to say prayers with a senior Methodist Church minister.

And for the hour-long trip on the team bus to the capital Apia, villagers lined the roadside to cheer the players.

Many burnt lanterns, some brought out Christmas decorations, others had plates of homemade food for the team.

‘‘ When we arrived we were really appreciative and really happy as the people showed their feelings,’’ said star back Mikaele Pesamino, who was voted the IRBs World Sevens Player of the Year.

The sentiment of the nation was captured by Koreti Aiono, who greeted the idols by singing Samoan ballads with other female members of her Fasitoouta village.

‘‘ This is for everyone, for the nation,’’ she said. ‘‘After the tsunami, this brings everyone up. We are all united with one spirit.’’

The country came to a halt on the public holiday as the Royal Samoan Police Band led the team in a march down Apias main street. When the players performed their traditional war dance, the Siva Tau, in the grounds of the parliament, the whole country

seemed to reverberate.

The smiles on the faces of the locals gave reason for optimism about the future.

But a trip around the areas worst hit by the tsunami revealed that while the atmosphere is tranquil, a lot of painstaking work still needs to be done to help the locals get back on their feet.

As building work goes on, crosses stand as memorials to the victims among the upturned cars and debris from destroyed homes.

Aggie Grey, who works at the legendary Aggie Greys Hotel in Apia founded by her grandmother in 1934, said her country had a long way to go.

‘‘ But Samoan people are very resilient,’’ Grey said.

‘‘ Even after what had happened they got stuck in two days later and didnt wait around for the aid.’’

Grey said the teams win had lifted spirits.

‘‘ They are the talk of the town,’’ she said. ‘‘There is hope for the Samoan people now, especially for the young kids who want to be rugby players,’’ she said.

SOURCE: Rugby Central (dailytelegraph.com.au)