RWC 2019 Pool Game 9: Samoa finish strongly to down brave Russians

Samoa have overcome two yellow cards and stubborn resistance from Russia, to start their World Cup campaign with a 34-9 win in Kumagaya.

A first half in which they struggled to finish off much of their promising approach play, didn’t get any easier when they went down to 13 men after a couple of high shots that could have resulted in greater punishment. But after holding a slim 6-5 advantage at the break, they began to break down the Russian defence the longer the game wore on.

The Bears were no doubt affected by the four-day turnaround since they took on the hosts in the tournament opener, and five second half tries for Samoa was a harsh reflection on their efforts.

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Samoa were rusty, nervous, complacent or all three from the opening whistle, offering up a charge down, an intercept, and sloppy handling in the opening exchanges to hand Russia some early scraps of positivity. They were also guilty of shooting themselves in the foot every time they got inside the Russian 22, coughing up two penalties at the scrum and a skewed lineout to frustrate head coach Steve Jackson and his team.

However, the catalyst of most of their attacking thrusts was fullback Tim Nanai-Williams, and it was he who finally opened the door for his side in the 15th minute, firing a long cut-out pass wide for Alapati Leiua to step inside and power over. But Russia got themselves on the board within a couple of minutes, Samoa straying offside and flyhalf Yury Kushnarev crossing the black dot with his penalty to make it 5-3.

They almost added a five-pointer as the game ticked into the second quarter, scrumhalf Vasily Dorofeev dummying his way through the line on halfway before tearing towards the 22, and if he’d noticed Vladimir Ostroushko racing up in support on his right, chances are the pacy outside centre would have found the line. But when Samoa infringed at the breakdown shortly after, Kushnarev struck again to incredibly edge the Bears in front by a point.

The Pacific lslanders’ night got worse before the half hour, centre Rey Lee-Lo sent to the bin for a high shot on Russian captain Vasily Artemyev. But given the edict issued by World Rugby around head contact, the only surprise was that it wasn’t red, particularly when the on-field officials had seemingly decided that was the appropriate punishment, only to be talked out of it by the TMO.

That decision wasn’t exactly ameliorated by what happened next. Samoan hooker Motu Matu’u launched into a ridiculously vicious and high hit on Artemyev – who must have been wondering what he had done to invite such ire – only to knock himself out cold in the process. Once he was back to his feet, he too was shown yellow by referee Roman Poite. But again, it could very well have been a different colour.

Now blessed with a significant leg-up in the contest with which to profit, Russia showed their naivety to let Samoa off the hook. First they took a mark and kicked to touch for the Samoans to walk up slowly to a lineout and then keep possession, instead of keeping the ball in play and building phases to create the inevitable overlap through the extra numbers.

Then they gave away a penalty at the breakdown, missed by Tusi Pisi, but another opportunity for Samoa clock to run down. When Lee-Lo returned from purgatory, Russia hadn’t even made it inside his team’s 22, and that’s how it stayed until half-time. An opportunity scandalously wasted.

Such a lack of experience and game nous came back to bite them five minutes after the restart, when neat footwork from winger Ed Fidow stretched the Russian defence and big no.8 Afaesetiti Amosa went over to make it 10-6. But that too came at a cost, a clumsy challenge from Kirill Gotovtsev catching Amosa as he tried to ground and forcing his knee back at an uncommon angle. He was duly stretchered off and Gotovtsev saw yellow, as the game continued to serve up plenty of drama.

The Bears came again, working themselves into position for Kushnarev to smartly slot a drop-goal to get within a point. But Samoa had a third try inside a minute, a lovely reverse pop pass from replacement hooker Ray Niuia sending the Russian defence the wrong way, and Fidow striding through a hole to mop up. That score proved to be the dam-breaker, a dazzling run from Leiua finished off by Fidow for his double as the Russians understandably tired.

As against the Wallabies in their World Cup warm-up match in Parramatta a few weeks ago, former Melbourne Rebel Paul Alo-Emile came off the bench to lend his considerable weight to the Samoan scrum for the last quarter. And it was a scrum penalty that kick-started their next assault on the Russian 22, Nanai-Williams and Pisi combining to send Lee-Lo over in the corner for 29-9.

The brave Bears didn’t fold, going back to basics to pick and drive their way within a metre, win a penalty, then maul their way forward once more and seemingly over, only to be agonisingly ruled to have been held up. Credit to Samoa’s goal line defence though.

But it was the Pacific Islanders – and man of the match Leuia – that had the last say, a looping wide pass taken in his stride by the winger, and two big ‘don’t argues’ later he was dotting down his second.

A great effort from Russia given such a short turnaround after the tournament opener against Japan. But with Ireland and Scotland still to come, their chances of an upset victory have surely been extinguished. Conversely, if Samoa can sort out their discipline, they have the strike power to potentially have a big say in this pool.

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SAMOA 34 (Alapati Leiua 2, Ed Fidow 2, Afaesetiti Amosa, Rey Lee-Lo tries; Tusi Pisi 2 cons) defeated RUSSIA 9 (Yuri Kushnarev 2 pens, drop goal) HT 6-5 at Kumagaya Stadium

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