30 Tesema 2022.
Samoa made the final for the first time in a true Cinderella story that made headlines around the world.
The streets of Apia were relatively quiet on Wednesday (29/12/2022), reflecting the post-Christmas slump and the closure of many government offices. However, like the calm before the storm, that was a change on Thursday as the nation welcomed its World Rugby champs, the Toa Samoa.
While technically the runners-up to the World title, each player and the entire management and coaching squad are true champions. Neither Samoa nor any other Pacific island, the second-tier nation, has reached the grand final at this elite level.
Toa Samoa had a tough pool to reach the finals after successfully defeating Matema'a and England.
As the team advanced to the final, so did the global support. What started as a small informal rally of vehicles before the quarter-finals developed into multiple nationwide convoys, including buses, semi-trailers, cars, vans and anything on wheels, like bicycles and even shopping trolleys.
Fans decorated it with flags, streamers, and balloons and blasted high volumes of music through augmented sound systems. Samoan communities around the world followed suit.
As the Toa advanced through its games, louder calls for the boys to return home were heard. The second group of players arrived in Samoa on Wednesday, and on Thursday, we witnessed the success of the homecoming campaign.
The popularity and exposure of rugby league differ from that of its more famous cousin, rugby union. The Government and private sector support were needed to bring the team home. In this regard, we must acknowledge the most generous sponsorship and partnership.
There was street parade through Apia on Thursday before Parish and captain Junior Paulo addressed the crowd, thanking them for their support through the campaign.
"We're very honoured and privileged to be here to celebrate with you guys," Parish said.
"We took a lot of inspiration throughout the tournament from the love and support and the parades that were going on in this great nation.
"In the tough times, we drew strength from you people. We are very proud and humbled by what we did.
"We also showed a lot of courage and resilience and a lot of teamwork, something that typifies Samoan people.
"I would like to thank everyone who made it possible for us to come back here for this celebration, particularly the Samoan government for their ongoing support of Rugby League Samoa, the board of Rugby League Samoa, and all of our fantastic sponsors.
"It has been a great end to 2022 for Samoa and I would just like to wish all Samoans around the world all the best for 2023 — 685 baby, the world knows where we are."
The loudest cheers of the day were reserved for Paulo, who later led his side in a Siva Tau with the adoring crowd.
Paulo first addressed the crowd in Samoan before switching to English.
"Samoa, you are the reason why we are here today. We get to celebrate with you all and we see how much it means to you.
"We are so proud that we are here to celebrate here with you all, our families, our friends but most of all our people.
"We are finally here. We wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world.
"We now know where Samoa is, because it's 685 to the world!"
The players were hosted by Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa at a government reception and will travel to Savai'I, the countries largest island, for New Year's Eve before returning home.
The festivities also honoured Samoa's rugby sevens team who recently downed New Zealand in the final of the Cape Town sevens tournament.
It is likely that the support for rugby league as a sport will expand considerably followng Samoa's success on the international field and this homecoming visit.
As our national heros parade through town on Thursday followed by an official welcome in front of the Government Building there will be a surge in national pride.