It was 27 years ago this month that the Apollo landing reverberated around Cardiff. It was the World Cup, it was Wales’ first game, and it was meant to be a comfortable start to the tournament. Peter Jackson recalls how a Samoan player, guided by an All Blacks legend, knocked the stuffing out of Wales and then did it all again eight years later.
The merest mention of his name still evokes memories of the lunar landing as well as a result that put Samoa over the moon and Wales under the blackest of clouds.
Apollo Perelini, so called because his birth in July 1969 coincided with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins launching Apollo 1 into space, did more than anyone to give the World Cup a giant-killing superseded only by Japan’s ambush of the Springboks almost a quarter of a century later.
What happened at Cardiff Arms Park on a Sunday lunchtime in October 1991 changed the course of rugby history and made Wales a laughing stock, rumbled at their own World Cup by a team representing the western portion of a speck in the Pacific Ocean.
At long last the fans who were there that day and the players who endured the embarrassment had reason for thinking that the defeat had been consigned to history. And then someone comes along from the cast of that tournament seven World Cups ago to give the whole ghostly business a new lease of life.
That someone happens to be one of the nicest people in the game as well as one of the greats, revered as the original ‘Bee-Gee’, long before the Gibb brothers got round to using the same moniker. Sir Bryan Williams was back at the cradle of the game the other day, Rugby School, for his overdue induction into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
The first Samoan to play for New Zealand, he literally changed the face of the game, blazing a trail for so many from the South Sea Islands while scoring 66 tries in 113 appearances for the All Blacks. Along the way he endured the ignominy of having to be granted honorary white status for the 1970 tour of South Africa to avoid falling foul of the beastly apartheid laws.
‘Bee-Gee’ took it in his dignified stride, then reinvented himself as a coach and took charge of the western part of Samoa for his renewal of hostilities with Wales. “We were not expected to win,’’ he said by way of under-statement. “I remember going out for our first training session in Cardiff.
“Before leaving the hotel I said to our team: ‘Boys, there’s always a lot of media attention here so just be careful how you go about your business.’
“We got off the bus at the training ground to find there was no-one there. The following week, on the Monday after we’d beaten Wales, there were hundreds! Then we very nearly beat Australia in a pool game and they went on to beat England in the final at Twickenham.
“I knew we had a really good team, one capable of doing some damage. We had really devastating tacklers, like Apollo. A really nice guy – off the field. On it, they didn’t call him ‘The Terminator’ for nothing.’’
He wrought enough havoc at the Arms Park to terminate Wales as contenders. Their defeat, 13-16, pushed the bronze medallists from 1987 on a hopeless collision course with the Wallabies who waltzed through the quarter-final 38-3. Apollo and his Polynesians had knocked the stuffing out of Wales.
As if to show it was no freak, ‘Bee-Gee’ returned to Cardiff eight years later to supervise a World Cup encore, this time by the wider margin of 38-31. In doing so he had outpointed another beknighted Kiwi, Sir Graham Henry, then the world’s highest-paid coach at £250,000-a-year.
“Wales were on a roll in ’99,’’ ‘Bee-Gee’ said. “I knew Graham well. We’d both coached Auckland and he looked a bit sheepish at the end. I might have said something like: ‘Gotcha again, mate.’
“For Samoa to beat a Tier One nation like Wales and then do it again was massive. It changed the whole rugby scenario in Samoa and it’s sad to see what’s happened subsequently.
“Not including a Pacific Islands team in the mainstream competitions means they can’t generate half enough income to co-exist with the big countries. And that’s at a time when many of the Australian team, like the All Blacks, are made up of players with Pacific Islands’ heritage.
“More representation at the top table of the international game would certainly help. All I’m saying is: ‘Give them the opportunity’.”
And what of Apollo? Now 49, he is director of sport at a private school in Dubai having helped St Helens Rugby League club win a glittering array of trophies during his time there as a player and coach.
Peter Jackson appears courtesy of The Rugby Paper.