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'Those contracts in France... their condition was I had to turn down the World Cup'

Samoa captain Jack Lam is one of five free agents in their 31-man squad in Japan.

JACK LAM’S PLIGHT is symbolic of the unfairness that is involved in playing for Samoa.

He doesn’t complain, but after walking into the press conference backed by the sound of his team-mates happily singing in their changing room down the corridor at Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium, he is intriguing to listen to.

The term ‘Tier 2′ is part of the issue here and rugby surely needs to banish the phrase from its vocabulary, highlighting as it does the distinction between rugby’s richest nations and those who simply don’t get a fair crack of the whip.

japan-rugby-wcup-samoa Samoa at their captain's run in Fukuoka today. Source: Aaron Favila

Lam is 31-years-old. He has played more than 50 Super Rugby games in the back row for the Hurricanes, over 70 times for Bristol in the Premiership and Championship, has heaps of Mitre 10 Cup experience, and 37 Tests for Samoa – a figure that would be greater but for the Samoans’ lack of regular Tests compared to the leading nations.

Jack Lam is the captain of Samoa at this World Cup – he calls this squad his “family” – and has also captained Bristol, among other teams, in the past.

In short, he has an excellent rugby CV. But right now, he doesn’t have a contract with a professional club.

When Bristol released him at the end of last season, Lam had a number of approaches from French clubs to sign for them ahead of the 2019/20 campaign. Those contract offers came with one condition, however – giving up on playing at the 2019 World Cup and his Test rugby future.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Lam today after his team’s captain’s run in Fukuoka before tomorrow’s Pool A clash with Ireland.

“Those contracts in France I could have taken but their condition was that I had to turn down the World Cup and [the opportunity] to play for Samoa in the future as well.

“I just couldn’t do that. I see myself too much in the jersey and it just didn’t cross my mind.

“It was a bit of a risk, especially for my family, but my missus and family are all behind my decision. I’m not too sure what’s next for me at the moment. One or two things but, yeah, I’ll wait until after.”

Decided to play for his country at the World Cup has left Lam without certainty about where he goes post-Japan, with Samoa’s campaign concluding tomorrow against Ireland.

There are other players in this squad who were pressured by clubs not to travel to the World Cup. Wing Belgium Tuatagaloa had a contract at a French Fédérale 1 club pulled when he decided to play international rugby.

japan-rugby-wcup-samoa Samoa fullback Tim Nanai Williams at their captain's run today. Source: Aaron Favila

There are five players in Samoa’s 31-man squad who are free agents right now, Lam among them.

Meanwhile, the hugely experienced lock Joe Tekori announced his shock retirement from Test rugby very soon before the World Cup in order to focus on playing for Toulouse, while there are several other players who weren’t available to Samoa for selection for the same reason.

“We can’t pick some players and other players have chosen to take that,” said Lam. “I chose not to take that path.

“Other guys have families as well, obviously, and they might have seen that as a risk coming to the World Cup but hopefully that will change in the future and we won’t have these kinds of problems.”

World Rugby simply must get on top of this problem if Samoa and the other Pacific Nations are to compete to their full capability. The governing body claim that Test rugby is sacrosanct but actions would speak much louder than hollow words.

World Rugby also needs to ensure that Samoa and many other nations get enough Test rugby in the first place. While the likes of Ireland can play 11 or 12 international games in a calendar year, the Samoans often have just six.

“Six games in a year doesn’t give us much time to prepare the squad and hopefully that will change in the future,” said Samoa assistant coach Alistair Rogers, a former All Blacks analyst.

“Any time we play – I hate to use the terms Tier 1 and Tier 2 – but any time we play a Tier 1 team, it’s a great opportunity for us.

“It should be happening [more regularly] for us as a team that wants to grow. It has to happen. The only way you learn is by testing yourself against the best and that is what we would like to do as a team.

japan-rugby-wcup-samoa Wing Ed Fidow's calf tattoos. Source: Aaron Favila

“Hopefully we get more of these opportunities against Tier 1 nations and that will help us to grow.”

World Rugby would point out that some of their funding has helped to put together this Samoan coaching team that includes former Rogers, head coach Steve Jackson, and ex-Wallaby fullback Chris Latham as attack coach.

The coaching ticket are not sure what will happen for them post-World Cup either, but they are desperate for their players to finish this tournament with a bang tomorrow against Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

They have frustrations over their yellow cards and suspensions, as well as how World Rugby treats the rugby nations outside the Six Nations and Rugby Championship, but they have no doubt about how much playing for Samoa means to this group of players.

Some of them have given up a concrete future for this opportunity.

“It has been a challenge for us selecting a squad, but the great thing about it was we actually knew that we had a group that really wanted to be here,” said Rogers.

“They sacrificed a lot to be here and you can build a good foundation with that and we believe we have. I think it has to change for the future of the Pacific Island teams.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from Fukuoka Hakatanomori Stadium

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