Samoa’s squad is acutely aware of the huge interest it has attracted from reaching its first Rugby League World Cup final.
Fans of Toa Samoa have been blasting car horns and waving every Samoan flag they can find since the team’s shocking 27-26 semifinal win over tournament host England last weekend in London.
That put the Toa into the final on Saturday at Old Trafford with hot favorite Australia, which has won eight of the last nine World Cups.
Center Stephen Crichton, who kicked the golden point dropped goal that broke English hearts, said the backing from supporters has swelled their pride.
“It means a lot to all the boys in the squad and it means a lot for our motherland and the people of Samoa,” Crichton said.
“We’ve seen all the videos that’s come out of it and how proud they all are. Flags are being sold out everywhere, it’s pretty crazy.”
Even actor Dwayne Johnson joined in on social media, asking the Toa to show grit and define their legacy.
“I am delivering this message with boundless love and boundless reverence and respect and boundless pride for my boys, my usos, the Toa Samoa rugby team,” the Rock said. “This is the first time that our island, our country, our culture of Samoa has ever gone to the finals for any sport. They are making history and I could not be more proud of them, we could not be more proud of them. “
Matt Parish has been coaching Samoa since 2013, and said Crichton and other Australia-based players could have committed to the Kangaroos instead of Samoa. But their ambition to make history, to put Samoa back on the map, was greater.
“That was the whole idea of it when all the boys made that pledge to come to Samoa,” Parish said. “We didn’t want to be in it to compete with the other teams, we wanted to actually make it to the top.”
Crichton was part of the Penrith Panthers team that won the National Rugby League final last month, along with Samoa teammates Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Izack Tago, Spencer Leniu and Taylan May. They were further strengthened in the Samoa team by Joseph Suaalii and captain Junior Paulo.
They lost 60-6 to England in their opening match and turned around their fortunes in stunning style. They are the first new team to reach the final in 54 years.
But they face Australia as massive underdogs, although Crichton said they’re far from finished.
“They’re the top team that everyone wants to beat,” he said. “They’re full of superstars and they’re going to test us but we’ve definitely got full confidence in the boys that we can get the job done .”
Australia coach Mal Meninga said they will not be taking Samoa lightly and insisted his side will play with just as much passion as Samoa.
“I wouldn’t say [Samoa are] massive underdogs,” Meninga said. “They’ve played really good rugby league. As Matt has mentioned numerous times, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
“They deserve to be here. We’re not underestimating them. We’ve got full respect for them. We need to prepare well and be at our best to win it.”
Meninga said the opportunity to win a 12th World Cup crown has not dulled the Kangaroos’ commitment.
“We’re no less passionate or committed,” he said. “We’re expected to win all the time, that’s the burden we carry, but we still play with passion and commitment that is conducive to being Australian.
“I’m an internationalist, I want the international game to thrive. It’s been a great World Cup and to play Samoa in the final is great testimony to the way the game is developing — it’s going to be a fantastic game.”
Meninga kept the same team that beat New Zealand 16-14 in an epic semifinal, including halfback Nathan Cleary ahead of his experienced rival Daly Cherry-Evans.
Parish was forced to make one change. Hooker Fa’amanu Brown, who deputized for an absent Danny Levi in the semifinal, was ruled out by concussion protocols. Utility player Chanel Harris-Tavita steps into the dummy-half role in his final international.