Although primarily known for producing scores of talented players in rugby union, the nation of Samoa (population 179,000) has a recently established presence in Aussie rules.
The game was first introduced in the Samoan capital of Apia back in 1997, with the country’s governing body being founded the following year as the Samoa Australian Rules Football Association (SARFA). An exhibition match drew an impressive crowd, and the new footy players showed athleticism, toughness, and a natural aptitude for the game.
Due to Samoans’ rugby fanaticism, the first games of footy were played under hybrid rules, including 15-on-15, restricting certain players’ movement and playing on rectangular rugby fields, as opposed to cricket ovals. This was called Samoan rules and was used as a catalyst to get people involved in the basics of footy. The SARFA also developed a mutual relationship with the AFL’s Western Bulldogs, as Samoa shares the same colors (blue, red, and white) as the Bulldogs’ jumper. Several AFL players visited Samoa for coaching clinics and development camps, most notably Bulldogs legend Brad Johnson.
The country’s international team was originally known as the Bulldogs. They debuted at Australia’s Arafura Games in 1999, where they took home the bronze medal; two years later, the Samoans competed against Nauru during an international test match in Melbourne.
The year 2002 was big for Samoan footy, with Bulldogs being selected to the inaugural Australian Football International Cup. While they only finished seventh overall, this was a major step forward for Samoa, showing that they could compete at a high level against other countries. Also in 2002, AFL games were first broadcast on Samoan television.
The Bulldogs returned to Australia to field a team in the 2004 Multicultural Cup, but lost to the Israeli team in the Grand Final. In 2005, they finished in fifth place at the International Cup, beating Great Britain decisively and scoring a narrow win over Canada, while suffering losses to powerhouses Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.
The SARFA was reincorporated as AFL Samoa in 2007, and the national team was renamed the Kangaroos in time for the 2008 edition of the IC, mostly due to the influence of Aaron Edwards, a Samoan-born footy player for the North Melbourne Kangaroos. That year, Samoa beat India, but lost again to New Zealand and suffered a disappointing loss to the Japanese team as well.
In addition to Samoa’s historic relationship with the Western Bulldogs, they also share close ties with the Moorabbin Kangaroos, a team in suburban Melbourne that competes in the Southern Football League. There remains an ongoing effort to keep a strong senior league going in Samoa, as footy already has a strong foothold among schoolkids. With the AFL looking to expand their geographic footprint in the South Pacific, they will no doubt have their eyes on Samoa in the near future.
Samoa currently boasts 240 senior players and 132 junior players, in addition to a schoolboys’ tournament and a full-time development officer appointed by the AFL.
SAMOANS IN THE AFL
- Karmichael Hunt (played 2011-2014) – Hunt is of Samoan descent on his dad’s side and his mother is a Cook Islander. While he hasn’t directly engaged with Samoan footy on the international level (having been born and raised in New Zealand), Hunt played in the AFL as a versatile midfielder/defender with the Gold Coast Suns for four seasons. Before his AFL career, Hunt played rugby league with the Brisbane Broncos from 2004-2009, and he currently plays rugby union with the Queensland Reds.
- Aaron Edwards (played 2003-2014) – Born in Samoa to a Kiwi father and Samoan mother, Edwards emigrated to Melbourne, where he played under-18 footy with the historic Dandenong Stingrays team in the TAC Cup. While Edwards played a few seasons with both West Coast and Richmond, his most notable career arc was when he played as a key forward for the North Melbourne Kangaroos from 2007-2012, kicking 122 career goals. Like many Polynesian converts to Aussie rules, Edwards played rugby union as a youngster before picking up a footy at the age of 13.
- Fia Tootoo (played 2008-present) – A Samoan national who lives in Melbourne, Tootoo plays at the semi-pro level for the Nyora Saints, a team in the Ellinbank & District Football League. Tootoo is also a key member of the Samoan national team.