Cynthia Ta’ala, the last woman to captain Samoa at Rugby World Cup, is doing all she can to help the Manusina secure a return to the showpiece tournament next year.
It is now more than eight years since Ta’ala collapsed in a heap of emotion having helped the Manusina book their place at Rugby World Cup 2014 against all the odds in Madrid.
Samoa were required to compete in European qualification for a place in France, and despite losing their opening match to Italy, the team coached by the late Peter Fatialofa punched their ticket to France with victories against Sweden and the Netherlands.
“It was a campaign where no one really gave us a chance to qualify. It was emotionally hard,” Ta’ala told World Rugby.
“I remember the last game, we needed to win and we won, we won well, I couldn't breathe. I just collapsed on the field and just bawled my eyes out.
“I don't usually cry much… in terms of tears, that doesn't really come out. But, it came out on that day. I felt such a huge weight, just off my body.”
Rugby World Cup return?
Ta’ala went on to captain Samoa at RWC 2014, just weeks before her 40th birthday, and now has an opportunity to write another chapter in the country’s proud rugby history.
As Manusina assistant coach, Ta’ala had spent the last few weeks working with head coach Ramsey Tomokino to put together a squad of Australian and New Zealand-based players to take on the Wallaroos.
The two-match test series has since been postponed due to heightened COVID-19 restrictions, but Rugby Australia hope to stage the historic matches later in the year.
Ta’ala and Tomokino had travelled to Australia only two weeks ago to oversee trials in Brisbane and Sydney, and the former Manusina captain was confident they could select a squad capable of competing against, and beating, their hosts.
Despite the postponement, the trip across the Tasman Sea was not a wasted one as the two coaches got to run the rule over a number of uncapped players.
Some of those players could yet feature on the road to Rugby World Cup 2021, with Samoa set to compete in the Final Qualification Tournament.
“Qualifying for Rugby World Cup is our number one goal. It has been since 2018 when we started to rebuild Manusina, after missing out on Rugby World Cup 2017,” Ta’ala said.
“There have been major shifts, a spike in interest to play for Manusina in New Zealand and particularly in Australia, as well as around the world.”
Ta’ala has had a busy 2021. Alongside her Samoa commitments, she helped coach a Moana Pasifika women's sevens team, answered an “SOS call” to manage a community women’s club in Auckland, is a World Rugby-accredited coach educator and is part of the Ako Wāhine programme.
However, her route into coaching was not routine. Ta’ala had been a standout athlete since her youth – she represented New Zealand at basketball and rugby league – and struggled to come to terms with the idea that her playing days could be over, putting off retirement until she was 43.
“When I was playing, I didn't really see past playing. I just thought, ‘OK, I'm just going to play’,” Ta’ala explained.
“I had the hardest time trying to retire. I think it took me about seven or eight years trying to retire each time, to come to grips with it.
“It was quite hard to think, ‘OK, I'm ready to walk away from the game now’. It wasn't easy and if I’m being honest and real – and it might benefit somebody that's reading this – I can confess there were so many lows of just thinking of retiring because I didn't see past that threshold.
“And, so looking back at my time now, I definitely think I was going through a depression because it was kind of a major disruption in my life off-field.”
She added: “My word of advice for somebody that's playing or coming towards the end of their career, is to find your identity in something else other than just being an athlete.
“Only because it doesn't last forever and unfortunately it took me [until the] end of the playing career to actually figure that out.
“You know, it's what I did for a long time, it’s what players do for a long time — but it isn't who I am.
“It’s only in the last couple of years that I've come to that conclusion.”
Ta’ala admits that a chance opportunity led her into coaching, when she was unable to compete in a national sevens tournament in New Zealand in 2015.
Two years later, a “blessing in disguise” came in the form of an injury which prevented her from playing and pushed her towards hanging up her boots for good.
In that same year, 2017, Ta’ala began working for Counties Manukau as a Women’s Rugby Development Officer and it was in that role that her coaching ambitions crystallised.
Enticed by the opportunity to provide players with a safe environment in which to develop, while learning new skills herself, Ta’ala set out some coaching goals with the help of the regional union’s former operations manager, Dameon Chaney.
“He was very much a really big part of helping me with my coaching levels and asking me, you know, what's your goal? What's your ambition?
“I said: 'I want to be an international head coach’, and that was back in 2017.
“He goes, 'Oh, OK, then you have to do this, this and this’… so that's how it all started in terms of the journey of what I needed to do.”
Ta’ala would love that journey to include a stint as the head coach of the Manusina, but for now she's grateful to both the union and Tomokino for allowing her to develop as an assistant.
“Ramsey Tomokino and Lakapi Samoa have been really supportive,” she said. “I'm a woman, I'm coaching our Manusina team, that's very rare and I don't take that for granted.
“The position that I'm in, I'm fully aware that it can be finished at any time. But while I have that title at the moment, yeah, I'm definitely going to do that 100 per cent, for our players and because of the trust that Lakapi Samoa and Ramsey have in me.
“He gives me a lot of autonomy to do what I need to do to make our forwards better.
“Yes, he oversees everything, but I love that he allows me to do my thing and he doesn't micromanage. So I've learnt so much from him, I continue to learn a lot from him.
“And, I'm very fortunate to have a lot of brothers and sisters beside me who mentor me in doing what I do. I'm definitely very lucky.”
Were Ta’ala to help Manusina reach RWC 2021 as an assistant coach would she feel as emotional as she did as captain in Madrid in 2013?
“I would,” she said. "To do that again would be so special. I mean, we can do it again!
“Am I ready for it emotionally? Probably not, because I’d probably still do the same thing and just break down because it's been a journey. Has it been a hard journey? No, it hasn't been a hard journey, it's just been a long one.
“It's definitely been a rewarding one. But for so many reasons, it would be such an emotional time just for Samoa to get there.”