MUCH OF STEPHEN Betham’s work with Samoa since taking over as head coach in April 2012 has involved building a more structured game plan for his talented players.
Normally, this idea would mean the out-half being asked to impose shape on his team and to direct play around the field as the coach desires. While Tusi Pisi does do some of that for Samoa, scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i will be the most important tactical decision maker against Ireland on Saturday. We will take a closer look at the Northampton Saints man tomorrow.
Pisi and Fotuali’i form a classically French-style halfback pairing, with the scrum-half bossing play and the out-half expected to create attacking magic. That is certainly what Pisi does for Samoa very often, meaning Ireland will need to keep a close eye on the 31-year-old in open play.
The one-time Toulon out-half has played most of his club rugby with the Hurricanes in Super Rugby and the Suntory Sungoliaths in Japan’s Top League over the past three years, switching between the two depending on the time of season. The emergence of Beauden Barrett at the Hurricanes in recent seasons has meant a back-up role for Pisi there.
Despite having impressed for North Harbour in the early stages of his career, Pisi was only capped by Samoa for the first time in 2011 and has gone on to win 13 caps. Over the last two years, he has developed into one of the most important cogs in the Betham’s machine, sparking play and creating line-breaks from number 10.
One of the main strengths of Pisi’s game is his own breaking ability from deep. He is at the root of many of Samoa’s best tries, very often cutting through the defence from inside his own half to set up scores for others. The Apia native is excellent when play becomes broken up, and he is quick to spot ‘fatties’ [front row players and the slower forwards] in the defensive line.
Pisi’s breaking threat seems to be far greater from inside his own half, when the defence is understandably less expectant of the out-half running the ball. Ireland can’t afford to make that mistake or Pisi’s excellent footwork will cut them open and allow men like the powerful wing Alapati Leuia to finish off their out-half’s good work.
The Samoan out-half will be searching for holes in our defence. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan.
Pisi possesses a strong passing game, allowing Samoa to put width on the ball when they wish to do so. He is also comfortable prompting his big ball-carrying forwards onto the ball, although Fotuali’i does like to perform that role from scrum-half. Overall, Pisi is a good attacking out-half; he passes well, can break himself, and has vision.
Kicking is an area of weakness for the Samoan number 10, although he has occasional solid performances in this area. His striking of the ball is inconsistent and he makes poor connections as often as he displays good technique. Under pressure, his kicking game is weak, and Ireland should certainly look to expose that.
Fotuali’i will look to take some responsibility for kicking out of the Samoan 22, but if Pisi takes on that task, Ireland can either block him down or force him to miss touch and provide counter-attacking opportunities for our back three.
If Pisi is handed the task of place-kicking on Saturday, as looks likely, then Ireland should push referee Steve Walsh that little bit harder at the breakdown. The Samoan out-half is wildly inconsistent off the tee, scuffing as many attempts as he guides between the uprights. Obviously Ireland don’t want to concede penalties, but they have scope to test Walsh’s patience that extra bit given Pisi’s lack of goal-kicking expertise.
It’s not all good news on this front for Ireland, as Pisi does have one specialty in his kicking arsenal. He excels at low, diagnol kicks in behind the defensive line and he is good at keeping them in play. That means Leuia and whoever else is selected out wide can burst forward and compete with the covering defenders. Samoa have scored a couple of tries from this exact tactic in the past year, so Ireland need to be wary.
Pisi is capable of moments of magic in attack, and a solid defender too. Les Kiss will have identified him as a threat during Ireland’s defensive planning over the last two weeks, but the players will need to remain focused as Pisi can strike when least expected. However, the out-half’s kicking game presents an opportunity for Ireland to pile the pressure on and turn possession over.
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