Monday, December 19, 2005
Other Unions: Running wild
By: Stephen Jones
The flair of Sale’s flying Samoan has illuminated English rugby, but only a remarkable twist of fate saw him join the club
Elvis Seveali’i arrived at an appointment with his own sporting fulfilment with five minutes to spare. Until this season, his first with Sale Sharks, he was seen in the sport as a kind of itinerant wing super sub, perhaps even a frippery. The wonderful record of Samoan players in British rugby means that recruiters covet them, but his chief claim to fame after being imported as an unknown from his Wellington home for one season with Bath and two with the Ospreys lay in one try.
At the end of the 2002-03 season, Bath were anxious to add some attacking devil to a struggling team and New Zealand agents came up with the name of Seveali’i, then a 23-year-old provincial player. He had no real ambitions to uproot himself and was pushing for a place on the Hurricanes Super 12 roster. Yet when the call came out of the blue, he packed his bags, battled culture shock in the Georgian city and settled in. In his early games, he produced some startling running.
However, Bath were still staring relegation squarely in the face when they were trailing in the last minute of stoppage time at home against London Irish. Seveali’i then scored an amazing try down the right wing, by a conservative estimate helping to save Bath the £2m that the drop would have cost them, and became an instant West Country hero.
“It was sweet but I suppose at the time I didn’t really appreciate how big that occasion was, and what relegation would have meant to those guys at the club,” he says. “I used to play for the Johnsonville club in Wellington, and we got relegated all the time.”
Yet Seveali’i could not persuade Bath to extend his short contract, not least because he was categorised as an overseas player, and so he moved on to two seasons with the Ospreys. “It was a different approach down there in Wales and I spent the first year trying to find my feet and trying to understand where the coaches were coming from,” he says. “The second season was a lot better, and I still have friends among those guys. But in the end they had so many midfield players, and I preferred to play in the centre. They had Gavin Henson, Sonny Parker, the Bishop brothers (David and Andrew).”
The Ospreys did not renew, and Seveali’i’s rugby career was in the balance. He had one offer to stay in Britain, from lowly Glasgow.
“I went up there and it was a good place,” he says, though I did not detect the spark of conviction in his words. With the greatest respect, to have joined Glasgow would have added to the impression of a career sliding and of a player who could deliver colour but not consistency.
Then, the five-minute saving. “I was sitting at home last summer,” he says. “It was a Tuesday and I had agreed with Glasgow that I would get back to them by five o’clock to confirm that I was joining. And I f*** you not, I was sitting there at five to five, wondering what to do, when the phone rang.”
It was Kingsley Jones, one of the Sale coaches. “It turned out that Kingsley had spent all day trying to get my number,” he adds. “It was worse because I didn’t have a mobile phone. He tried everyone he thought might know me and got through just in time. Scoring that Sale contract was really flukey.”
It is possible that Sale had not much more in mind than the rounding-out of their squad with a useful back-up player, but their plans have now been profoundly revised. Seveali’i has been a revelation, has become one of the most influential players in Sale’s outstanding run and a signature figure of the whole Premiership and European season. He appears bigger and stronger, he has been hitting hard, he has been fiery and passionate. But he has also retained his trademark elusiveness, his sporting dance steps and cutting running.
He recently polished off Saracens with two vivid tries, he has made space in crowded midfields and what was once a kind of garish flashiness has given way to a very fine all-round talent: “I think that Philippe Saint-André (Sale’s director of rugby) and Kingsley have probably looked to me for some enthusiasm, perhaps some razzle-dazzle.”
They have found quality. The benefits are flowing both ways. “I am really enjoying the experience,” he says. “The big plus at Sale is that they know what they want their players to do. They love the running game and they let us have freedom to express ourselves. They have an awesome professional staff. But what about those forwards? You can’t go wrong playing behind those big guys.”
The midfield partnership of Seveali’i playing at inside- centre between the imperious Charlie Hodgson and the artful Mark Taylor is one of the best in the league. And, as usual with Samoans, when you buy one to play for you, you buy a package. Or to put it another way, once you have interviewed one fine young Samoan, you have interviewed them all, and I mean that as high praise.
Seveali’i, like a host of his Samoan predecessors in the British game, buys avidly into what his employers are trying to achieve, while at the same time observing the customs and practices of his own nation — the Samoan sense of family, religion and adherence to customs. Admittedly the umu, the alfresco Samoan means of cooking over stones laid above a fire in the ground, is a rather incongruous sight in Bramhall, where he lives, and he also bemoans the fact that only a few Cheshire outlets stock taro, a potato-like sustenance.
At Christmas time he expects Samoan friends to descend from around the country. But his commitment to his country runs deeper. He grew up in Wellington, playing in the same circuits as others of Samoan extraction such as Alama Ieremia, Rodney So’oialo and Jerry Collins, perfecting his ball-skills and hand-eye co-ordination in basketball, volleyball, even golf. Like many players of Samoan birth or extraction, they faced the key sporting question of their lives — whether to play for Samoa, an impoverished union offering limited opportunity for professional rugby, or to opt for New Zealand. So’oialo and the others took the Kiwi route, as have so many others, leaving Samoa with the potential, rather than the achievement, of being the greatest rugby nation on earth. At heart, they are.
Seveali’i has stayed in the Samoan fold, first played for his country three years ago and was still there in the centre for Samoa against England last month. His decision, made at a time when he was moving through New Zealand colts teams, probably condemned him to a club-hopping future.
Indeed, advice of family and friends was originally to opt for the possibility of New Zealand security. Our admiration for those players who follow their heart really must be total. “It was a very big decision and I suppose that there were some people who were dead against it,” says Seveali’i.
“But life in the Samoan team is so different from life in any other team. A few of us opted (for Samoa) together and we have our own unique way, on and off the field. We have a Christian foundation to the squad, because family and religion are important. We have role models such as Brian Lima and Inga Tuigamala who have been able to show us a lot of things through example. If others have opted for New Zealand, they were doing what was right by themselves, and that is fine, too.”
So Samoa have their very own Elvis — “Elvis” comes from his father’s love of The King. Danny Seveali’i has every record Presley ever made. Seveali’i’s given name is Iulai, meaning July; he has to settle for splashes of Samoa among the winter of the northwest of England, albeit with a flourishing club and a sporting environment in which he has finally found form and security, and where he is laying down a bank of solid achievement.
He is following a fine tradition of Samoan players willingly integrating their talent, but remaining true to themselves and to their country. Kingsley Jones’s timing with his phone call may have been hair-raising, but it was also, it seems, immaculate.