England may be out of the World Cup but Castleford boss Lee Radford and a sprinkling of Super League players including Tim Lafai are likely to have a big say in the outcome of Saturday’s final between Australia and Samoa.
Hooker Danny Levi, who enjoyed an impressive debut season with Huddersfield in 2022, was the solitary Super League representative in the Samoa squad when it was announced in October.
But Hull forward Ligi Sao was drafted in following the withdrawal of North Queensland Cowboys back rower Luciano Leilua on the eve of the tournament and Salford threequarters Lafai and Ken Sio answered SOS calls after Samoa lost Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Tyrone May, Braden Hamlin-Uele to series-ending injuries in the opening match.
Levi was forced to return home to Australia after the quarter-final for family reasons and Sio has yet to make an appearance but Sao and Lafai have made huge impacts and both scored tries in Samoa’s 27-26 win over England in Saturday’s semi-final at the Emirates Stadium.
Radford, Samoa’s defence coach, knew all about Sao, having signed him for Hull in 2020 and witnessed at close hand Lafai’s brilliance in 2022 that earned him a place in the Super League Dream Team.
But Radford says he met with initial resistance when he put forward the Super League players at the selection meeting and it was only fate that enabled him to get his own way in the end.
“They’ve been immense for me,” Radford said. “It’s been a fantastic reinforcement of some of the messages I’ve been bringing.
“We had a coaches meeting when we named the squad originally and I put a few names forward but I don’t know whether Super League has got the respect that it deserves over there.
“That was my initial thought, almost everybody I tossed up was almost sort of, probably not given the respect they deserved with the seasons they’ve had this year.
“But I’m buzzing for Ligi, buzzing for Danny Levi, buzzing for Tim Lafai and also for Ken Sio, who hasn’t participated but has been phenomenal off the pitch, he’s been as good a tourist as you could have asked for.”
Lafai’s appearance at Old Trafford on Saturday will complete a rags-to-riches story after he was thrown a lifeline by Salford.
The 31-year-old amassed over 150 NRL appearances with Canterbury Bulldogs and St George Illawarra but had been out of the game for a year and was working 12-hour shifts six days a week as a bricklayer in order to “put food on the table” for his wife and four children when the Red Devils came calling.
The only Samoa player to appear in three World Cups, Lafai is the most experienced player in the squad, with 17 caps going back to his debut against Papua New Guinea in 2013, yet had expected to be watching the tournament from the stands as a fan.
“I’ve definitely saved myself some money there,” he said. “I thought I would just be spectating. I was just going to get behind the boys, be with the fans in the crowd.
“To be called back in was a huge honour. Any time I can get to pull the blue jersey on means everything to me.”
Lafai scored two tries against England, taking his total to six in four matches, to help Samoa become the first tier-two nation to reach the World Cup final and now has the chance to round off a fairytale year by making more history.
“My wife and talk about it all the time, almost giving it up in 2021,” he said. “I came here and found my love for the game again and it means a lot to finish with the World Cup.
“We’re here to make history and we’ll go into the final giving our all, we’re going to leave everything on the field like the other day.
“We know they’re the best team in the world, we’ve just got to compete for every second, every minute of the game.
“This means everything to Samoa, a small island, we’re not just doing it for each other, we’re doing it for all the people back home.”
Meanwhile, Lafai insists he is happy to stay with Salford, having signed a new contract for 2023, but admits he would jump at the chance to return to the NRL.
“If there are any offers, I’d love to take them,” he said. “That’s where my mine and my wife’s families are but I’ll keep enjoying my rugby over here for the time being.”