On Saturday Manu Samoa played their one home game of the year against the Auckland NPC squad. Auckland won last year's NPC title and are a quality side full of Super 14 and All Blacks players. Coached by former Manu Samoa captain Pat Lam they've been on the road these last few weeks getting some matches under their belt before the NPC tournament kicks off next week.
It was always going to be a tough match for the Manu Samoa, made harder by the absence of many of their top players. With the international season over for the team, most of the overseas based players were recalled to their clubs. Consequently coach Laulii Michael Jones (himself a former Samoan All Black) looked to local players to make up the squad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the players were selected from the recently successfull Savaii Samoa team that took out the inaugural Pacific Rugby Cup. A few players from the 'Upolu Samoa squad were there too though and Super 14 player Loki Crichton was prominent.
The match was fairly close. Manu Samoa opened up the scoring with a penalty conversion but Auckland struck back with winger David Smith slipping past two defenders to score the first try of the match. The score see-sawed through the rest of the half with Auckland taking a slim 14-13 lead into half time.
Auckland came out much stronger in the second half and played some great rugby. They persisted in attacking the Manu Samoa goal line and were rewarded for their efforts. All Black Jerome Kaino scored his second try of the match to seal the win. The final score: 21-16 in Auckland's favour.
Despite the loss, it's a fairly positive result for Manu Samoa. Michael Jones only had a week or so to put the team together but they played very cohesive rugby. That the majority of the team played together during the Pacific Nations Cup no doubt had a lot to do with it. Also positive was the fact that the match gave a lot of local players their first opportunity to don the national jersey. With the Rugby World Cup just around the corner it was a good chance for Michael Jones to assess the quality of the players available to him and he will, inevitably, need to draw from the pool of players based in Samoa as well as those overseas.
As for us in the stands, we had a great day. We'd splashed out and bought the "corporate" tickets (though I negotiated a discount) and were able to enjoy drinks and nibblies as part of the package. Sure, the bar ran out of beer earlier than we hoped, but we had a great view of the field, the atmosphere was fantastic and we were entertained by some quality rugby. It's just a shame that Manu Samoa only had the one home game this year.