Samoan skipper Kaleopa ruled out
WESTERN Samoan skipper Danny Kaleopa, the rock on which his team built their Hong Kong Sevens triumph last year, has been ruled out of this year's squad because of a hamstring injury.
But the defending champions will still be a powerful force with seven players from last year's squad, plus the return of two world class players Junior Paramore and To'o Vaega, spearheading this year's challenge at the Hong Kong Stadium.
The only newcomer to the international scene is Setu Tuilaepa, who completes the 10-man squad.
Last year's Player of the Tournament, powerful centre Lolani Koko, will take over from Kaleopa as skipper for the March 26 and 27 tournament.
Coach Taufusi Salesa, who himself was the national skipper for many years, believes the side are capable of repeating their momentous victory of last year, when they defeated Fiji 14-12 in a bruising final.
''We have pretty much the same team as last year,'' said Salesa. ''Nearly all of them have been to Hong Kong before, so we will not be short on experience.
''A lot is expected from us and we will be under pressure to do well. The loss of Danny is a big blow, but we will try our best.'' Paramore is a strapping, tough-tackling player who caused a stir in the Western Samoan camp when he defected to New Zealand in last year's competition.
But he ended up wearing Samoan colours in the end when he was asked to play for his injury-hit native country in the final.
At the post-tournament dinner party, Paramore received a stern lecture about national loyalty from Samoan manager and mother-figure Marina Schaafhausen - and he has now switched back to Samoa.
Vaega was unavailable last year because of injury and replaces Filipo Saena.
The top-seeded Samoans take on the United States Eagles and Sri Lanka in Pool A and then a possible quarter-final Cup match against either Ireland or a strong President's Seven.
They were beaten by Ireland in the World Cup Sevens in Edinburgh last year, when they could not repeat the form which helped them to victory in Hong Kong.
But Salesa does not foresee a repeat should the two teams meet again.
''At the World Cup, it was very cold and we could not get used to it. We were not at our best.'' Schaafhausen said that the tournament has grown in quality every year and no team can afford to relax.
''We are taking it very seriously,'' she said. ''Everyone should take it seriously, otherwise, they cannot succeed.'' The Samoans have planned only one warm-up tournament prior to arriving in the territory - the Canberra Sevens, on the weekend before the Hong Kong event.
They will send a second-string side to the Fijian International Sevens on March 12.
Koko narrowly beat out Fijian superstar Waisale Serevi to the Player of the Tournament award in 1993.
He said last year that he may not return to Hong Kong as he wanted to set up his own religious mission.
But, fortunately for Hong Kong fans, he will lead the Manu side and will be a key player in their quest for a second successive title.
Last year's victory was a watershed for Samoa, who became only the sixth team to win the tournament since its inception in 1976.
They last reached the final in 1979 when they were beaten 39-3 by Australia.
In the last five years, they have been threatening to upstage the established sevens countries and finally got their breakthrough last year.
Western Samoa: Sila Vaifale, Junior Paramore, Setu Tuilaepa, Alefaio Vaisuai, Anetelea Aiolupo, Alama Ieremia, Lolani Koko, To'o Va'ega, Brian Lima, Veli Patu.