Maurie Fa’asavalu spoke to me in 2008 for Rugby League World about his rather unique international career. He captained Samoa in the 2003 union World Cup before signing for St Helens. In 2007, in a surprising move, he was drafed into the Great Britain and England squads courtesy of the residency rule.
Halfway through his first Rugby League training session, shortly after playing with such distinction for Samoa in the 2003 rugby union World Cup, Maurie Fa’asavalu wondered what on earth he’d agreed to.
He wasn’t fit enough and he was struggling.
By 2005 he’d had enough and wanted to go back to union.
He signed for Saints along with winger Dominic Feaunati. Feaunati made the more promising start but now plays union for Worcester. Fa’asavalu looked totally lost but is now a Great Britain international and a favourite of the Knowsley Road fans. Fa’asavalu is one of Super League’s most imposing figures.
“I had doubts right from day one in training! I really wondered what I was doing there. We were running on the sand for about two and a half hours with tackle shields. I just wasn’t fit enough at first and, to be honest, I wasn’t fit enough to play Rugby League for about two years not until I learned how to look after my body.
“League and union are totally different games and it’s very hard for a forward to switch codes if it’s union to League. But after the 2003 rugby union World Cup, the only club who came in for me was St Helens. I had a talk with Apollo and I also knew Freddie Tuilagi had been here. It was a big decision but I was so keen to come over and take on a new challenge.
I first played in the freezing cold at Barrow in a friendly. There were a few of us in a tackle and I just ripped it out like I would have done in union. I didn’t know the rules! My Super League debut was against Castleford and I could only play in five-minute spells. I didn’t know who to tackle because the Cas players were all running different lines and it took me a long time to read that.
“I played 13 games in my first year but I really wasn’t getting anywhere and at the beginning of 2005, I was thinking of going back to rugby union but then Daniel Anderson came on board at Saints. He told me that he’d coached a lot of island boys at the Warriors and he said he’d give me a chance and teach me how to play Rugby League.
“It felt like my career started again at that point.”
In those early days, the idea of Fa’asavalu playing for Great Britain would have been unthinkable – and not just because he’s Samoan – but after doing just that last year, he’s now hoping to make his England bow in June’s Test match in France as Tony Smith prepares to take his side to Australia for the World Cup later this year.
So how did the idea of playing Test football for his adopted nation come to him?
“I remember watching the Tri-Nations when I first arrived and it reminded me of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa playing each other in rugby union, which is massive,” he said. “When I saw the Rugby League Tri-Nations I knew straightaway that I wanted to play in it. I couldn’t play for New Zealand or Australia so the only option was to play for Great Britain. Every player wants to play top-level rugby and I’m no different.”
Last yeat Fa’asavalu pointed out that he had only ever played Rugby League in this country and that he has no connection with the Samoan Rugby League team.
“I captained them in rugby union sevens. The thing is, I didn’t play Rugby League at home and since I was born I’ve never seen our national Rugby League team. They play in World Cups but that’s about it. If they played in big teams every year then it might be different.
“So I asked my manager, Andy Clarke, to make some enquiries about me playing for Great Britain and he went to the Rugby League on my behalf. Then just before last season’s Challenge Cup final Tony Smith called me because he wanted to ask some questions along the lines of why I wanted to play for Great Britain. He also told me that it was all about performing on the field between then and the end of the season if I was going to be selected.
“I spoke to Keiron Cunningham, Paul Sculthorpe and Sean Long and they were supportive. I also talked to Apollo Perelini and he told me how much he regretted not being able to play in top-level internationals.”
Eventually, Fa’asavalu was selected in Smith’s squad on the basis that he had lived in England for three years. The selection was largely derided in the media but Maurie kept his head down and scored a debut try in the first-Test win at Huddersfield against a below-par Kiwis.
“When I joined up with the squad, the players were great,” said Fa’asavalu. “They all welcomed me and guys from other clubs like Jamie Peacock and Terry Newton were really friendly. The atmosphere was like it is at St Helens and that really helped me settle in.
“My debut at Huddersfield against New Zealand last year was memorable and I played in the next Test as well.
“I’m definitely hoping to get selected for the game against France but I haven’t been in good form recently and I’ve been injured,” he admits. “I’ve missed four games recently but hopefully I can get my fitness and form back in time because it’s not long to go before the Test.”