Samoa coach Steve Jackson is so determined to avoid the off-field issues that have previously plagued the Pacific islanders that he called in Japanese cultural experts to advise his players when to cover up their tattoos during the World Cup.
The 16th ranked Samoans scraped into the tournament after a poor qualification campaign, eventually overcoming minnows Germany in a two-leg play-off.
Jackson, a former assistant coach at the Auckland Blues, took over in September last year charged with restoring the fortunes of a team that made the quarter-finals in 1991 and 1995.
The New Zealander has improved performances on the field, notching up recent wins over Tonga and a New Zealand Heartland XV, with a final warm-up against Australia on Saturday.
He has also concentrated on ensuring his players have an appreciation of Japanese culture to avoid any misunderstandings while they are in the host nation.
That includes advice from consultants about displaying tattoos — which are an important part of Samoan culture but are shunned by many in Japan due to associations with the criminal underworld.
“They came into camp and told us about those sort of things, (gave us) the understanding about the tattoos and what we have to do there,” Jackson told reporters in Samoa.
“We’re well aware of all the things that we need to be looking out for.”
Such meticulous preparation is a far cry from the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, when senior players accused management of being unprofessional and treating the event like a holiday.
Then in 2014, players threatened to boycott Samoa’s Test against England at Twickenham due to lack of financial transparency and poor treatment by management.
Jackson was full of praise for the Samoa Rugby Union’s support during the latest campaign, with lack of player availability proving a more pressing concern.
‘Club over country’
While some overseas-based stars such as Tim Nanai-Williams and Tusi Pisi will appear for Samoa, others have opted to sit out the tournament rather than risk jeopardising lucrative club contracts.
“There will be speculation about some players who aren’t there and that’s purely because they made themselves unavailable — pretty much club over country,” Jackson said, without naming names.
“This is just the reality that we deal with at the moment.”
Jackson has made his own personal commitment to the team, revealing he recently turned down an offer to coach South Africa’s Southern Kings.
“My heart and soul in is Samoa at the moment,” he said, adding that he would reassess his future after the tournament.
Despite “quite a few” no-shows, Jackson was confident he had the best available squad because the players who had answered his call were all passionate about representing their country.
“We’ve can’t have guys that will second-guess playing for the jersey, we want guys that are hungry and want to be there,” he said.
“I think that’s what’s you’ll get with this squad.”
Samoa have been involved in some of the great World Cup upsets.
In 1991, playing as Western Samoa, they stunned tournament co-hosts Wales before a disbelieving crowd at Cardiff Arms Park.
The joke at the time was that the Welsh were lucky to have been playing Western Samoa, not the whole nation.
After changing their name to Samoa, the islanders inflicted more pain on Wales, this time at Cardiff’s newly-minted Millennium Stadium at the 1999 World Cup.
They almost made the quarters in 2015 but missed out when Scotland scored a match-winning try that the referee allowed after failing to spot a knock-on from Greig Laidlaw.
Samoa face the Scots again this year in Pool B, along with hosts Japan, Russia and Ireland.