Every day is countdown now for those of us packing up and heading off to the sixth Rugby World Cup in France.
As someone who has been fortunate enough to have attended all five previous Cup tournaments I am often asked about highlights of matches I have seen and rugby personalities I have enjoyed watching.
Being a Kiwi I could go on about John Kirwan, Michael Jones, or
Fitzy, Foxy and Jonah. They were all great All Blacks in their
time. In the proper sense of the word those men each had moments at
the World Cup when Kiwi hearts were pumping with joyous pride. But
if you were to ask me my all-time favourite Rugby World Cup player
from any country my answer might surprise you. I would plump for
Manu Samoa's Brian Lima.
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For the reasons why, let me take you back to a 1991 game on a murky afternoon in Cardiff, Wales. On that day the mighty home team, with all of their illustrious histoy, were setting out confidently on their march towards a possible victory in the Cup competition on their home turf. They were a confident nation. For them, their first match was to be against the unknown team of rugby's new kids on the block, the formality then called Western Samoa.
On the morning of the game it was obvious there was an education taking place for the Welsh people. A number of that day's papers published little world maps with arrows drawn across to the tiny group of islands nestled in the Pacific. There was scant knowledge of just where the Samoan islands were let alone any kind of rugby talent hidden in that place. Samoa was just that afternoon's cannon fodder for the Welsh heroes to devour.
Within the ranks of the visitors was a shy (and probably wide-eyed even possibly frightened) kid called Brian Lima. He was 19 years of age, just out of St Joseph's College in Apia. The journey from his tiny home village to the bustle of faraway Wales was his first time away from the familiar comforts of sun and warmth. Imagine the dissimilarity between the two places for the young lad.
Yet Lima that day played in front of 72,000 with a high-aggression, tough-tackling intensity that he became part of one of rugby's greatest ever upset results. 'Manu Samoa' (The Samoan Warriors) won by 16-13.
Afterwards at least one could say Welsh humour did shine through. "We lost to Western Samoa," a clever quip began, "imagine what might have happened if we'd played all of Samoa! A Cardiff newspaper banner the next day shouted 'Rock bottom!'
Back home in Apia, the capital city, the Samoan population boggled for the first time at the wonder of live TV. A national network had not yet arrived in the tiny country. Instead seven giant screens were erected in Apia Park the main rugby ground and the game was beamed in via satellite in the middle of the night. Young and old huddled under blankets and saw TV for the first time.
Their tackling of the Samoans was so fierce two of the local stars hobbled off the field, never to play tests again and as the home captain Ieuan Evans admitted this year, 'we were simply not ready for the kind of aggression Samoa hit us with.'
My job that day was as sideline commentator. Standing so close to the action the sound of the Samoan tackles came to my ears like the impact of a wet tea-towel smacking against the side on a telephone post. Young Lima, along with the 'Samoan' Frank Bunce, who would later become an All Black, and the three loose forwards, Shem Tatupu, Pat Lam and Sila Vaifale, also were leaders in the mayhem. For me though, my eyes were drawn repeatedly to Lima, especially as the match programmes told us that this unknown was the youngest player of any team from any country at the tournament.
In the dressing room afterwards I saw singing, smiling, hugging, dancing and rugby joy such as I have never witnessed before. For TV I interviewed everyone I possibly could but to eke a word from young Lima was nigh on impossible. I gave up on him. English was clearly not a language he was most comfortable with.
But in the years since Brian's grasp of English has improved to be a reflection of his worldly travelling experiences. Since 1991 he has played in every Rugby World Cup fixture that Manu Samoa has ever been in, 18 games out of 18. Now in 2007, as a 35-year old the old master is heading into his fifth World Cup finals in France. By doing so he is breaking new world ground. Up to 15 others from other countries will have notched up appearing in four finals tournaments, but only Lima has been in a full 17 year spread of World Cup play with all five Cup final series. To me, he is setting a record unlikely in these times of shorter-term careers to ever be broken.
This year as you watch the World Cup matches unfold, keep an eye on Lima. You will note that his challenges are just as aggressive, just as fearsome as they have always been. They are not lessened by the passage of time. In the recent Pacific Cup test matches there was no let up in his crunch. In France he will live up to the descriptions various writers have come to dub him with. Lima is either, 'The Rib Rattler,' 'The Bone-Cruncher,' 'The Hitman' or the favourite, 'The Chiropractor' (as his tackles apparently can affect the nervous system)
Such nick-names reflect the media's outright admiration for the highest standard of aggressive play that Lima has always inflicted on all opponents. Not only as a tackler either, Lima was originally a speedy and elusive winger, though in recent times he has inched closer into the midfield. So that his teams can maximise his attacking defensive work. Just ask the Springbok Derek Hougaard in 2003 when Lima hit him with a 'kitchen sink' tackle in the Samoa v South Africa World Cup game in Melbourne. The crowd gasped that night, many thinking the unfortunate young Springbok might never get up. The All Blacks Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen and the Fijian Norman Ligairi are several other high-profile players who have winced and gasped and a visit to a chiropractor seemed inevitable after meeting Lima head-on on the rugby field. In 2005 in the Southern Hemisphere v Northern Hemisphere game at Twickenham he was in vintage tough-tackling form.
In his long career Brian Lima has travelled the world as a rugby nomad and has played professionally for only the best club teams; Stade Français, Munster, The Auckland Blues, The Highlanders, Bristol and Secom (in Japan). The decision-makers from those clubs all have wanted Lima for a time. Possibly they have used the adage that 'it's better to have him on our team rather than in the opposition.'
Brian is a quiet, humble man who has always found himself pulled back to his homeland. Last time I spoke to him (it was at a World sevens event - where by the way - he has also played in every World Cup finals from the mini-version of the game too) he told me he was going into business at home (rental cars was mentioned then as a preferred option). Such an act is typical of this great Samoan. At his recent final 'home' test match in Apia v Tonga the crowds sang lustily for him and then cheered his every play to the echo. He gave a devastating display, back in his familiar place on the wing. Samoa won for him by 50-3.
Afterwards Brian faced the cameras, the media and fans. The previously reserved boy of 1991 is now a man of full eloquence. He said simply, "I want to thank the Head of State, who is the President of the Samoa Rugby Union, the Prime Minister, who is the Chairman of the Samoa Rugby Union, and the Samoa Rugby Union. And to all our people I add that without all your prayers, I'm certain I wouldn't be where I'm sitting today." In typical fashion Lima also thanked his family for their prayers gtoo, especially his wife Sina and their three boys, Brian Telefoni, Maliko Ma'afala and Manu.
Here's hoping this man who has given everything in every game he has played for nigh on 20 years - and not for one of the world's top teams either - can leave the scene at the upcoming World Cup with his reputation enhanced. He deserves that. Brian Lima has my respect. I never saw any rugby player give so much, so often for so long.