ISAAC Fea'unati, the robust No.8 who was a key figure in Melrose's club championship triumph last season, made his debut in international rugby last night . . . for a country he has never visited.

Fea'unati was in the Western Samoan back row for their convincing 40-25 Test match victory over Ireland at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, a promotion he attributed to his stint in Scotland last season.

Yesterday, Melrose faxed their congratulations to the powerful Polynesian, and coach Rob Moffat is optimistic Fea'unati will return to the Greenyards at the end of the Samoan tour next month to augment their formidable back-row resources.

Speaking before the match, Fea'unati sought to explain the quirk behind his first appearance. ``Both my parents are Samoan and I was brought up in the Samoan way, though I was born in New Zealand and I haven't actually been to Samoa. I hope to get out there on holiday soon.

``I was playing for Wellington when the Samoan union asked if I would make myself available for Manu Samoa as I was eligible through my parents.

``The team is looking towards the 1999 World Cup and trying to introduce some younger players, so I'm very excited to be part of it,'' he said.

That was typically modest on Fea'unati's part. Granted, he did not feature in the colours of Wellingon Hurricanes during the Super 12, but when the province resumed its regular programme he helped them come close to a semi-final spot in the National Provincial championship. He also scored a try against Samoa when Wellington defeated Pacific Islanders 52-30 last May.

``I reckon being in Scotland last season helped me a lot, not purely in the playing experience but from getting away from home. It was the first time I had been out in another country on my own.

``There were perhaps only a couple of games with Melrose last season where the level was close to what you would expect in a provincial match in New Zealand. But the biggest benefit for me was the improvement in my fitness.

``I came back from Scotland and I don't think I've ever been fitter. Everything has just seemed to stem from that,'' he said.

Fea'unati played 22 games for Melrose, scoring nine tries and made a favourable impact both on and off the field, as Moffat recalled. ``He is a super player but the pleasing thing was that he left a better player than when he arrived and he was certainly fitter. There was not an ounce of fat on him when he left.

``I think I learned a lot from having him here. When you get a quality player like that coming to Scotland there's a tendency to presume he can do this, that, and the next thing.

``We almost tried to fit things around about him, which is wrong. We should have said `right, this is the way we do things and you fit in round about it.'

``But in terms of slotting in at the club, you could not have expected more. He was a real gentleman, good crack, and very committed.

``When we lost to Hawick in the cup semi-final he was devastated. In the dressing room afterwards he was very emotional and said he didn't want that to be his epitaph at Melrose and that he would be back.

``I hope he might manage to come up at the end of the Samoan tour, even if it's just for a few games.''

As Moffat readily acknowledged, Fea'unati was at his best going forward for Melrose rather than when he was called upon to defend.

``Everybody talks about his strength and, rightly so, as he is a big muscular boy who is very hard to put down.

``But what maybe didn't show to the same extent was his pace. He is really quick over anything from 20 to 50 yards. You put him on a track and he could give a lot of guys a real fright.``

Fea'unati played his part in Western Samoa's victory over the Irish when he sent in

centre Vaega for an excellent try before the break.

But Va'aiga Tuigamala exploded back on to the international scene, the Wigan and Wasps wing almost single-handedly wrecking Ireland's celebrations in the first rugby match to be played under floodlights at Lansdowne Road.

Tuigamala marked his first union game for his homeland after starring for New Zealand for three years before making the switch to Rugby League with a crushing demonstration of power and precision.

He helped set up the Samoans' first two tries inside the opening 15 minutes as Ireland's players were left shell-shocked and unable to respond.

The Samoans added three more to outscore their hosts five tries to one to produce a victory to match their defeat of Wales in Cardiff during the World Cup in 1991.

Ireland's only try came late on from prop Paul Wallace with the only other points produced by the boot of Richmond full-back Simon Mason.

Defeat in their opening international of the season will be a crushing blow to the Irish who now have to pick themselves up before facing the might of Australia a week on Saturday.

I came back from Scotland and I don't think I've ever been fitter. Everything just seemed to stem from that


q MIKE O'Reilly, the former Edinburgh secretary, has been appointed as the district's team manager for the remainder of the season following the retirement of Rob Flockhart.

The post had been offered to, and accepted by, Colin McLeod, but he subsequently withdrew from the appointment, because of health considerations.

O'Reilly has considerable experience as a rugby administrator, having served on the committee of his club, Heriot's FP, and having been an Edinburgh selector and the team secretary with the senior district squad.

The new team manager will quickly assume duties in preparation for Edinburgh's opening inter-district championship match against Glasgow on December 22.

BATH supremo John Hall has described Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown with Cardiff as ``the biggest match in our history.''

A sell-out 12,000 crowd will pack the Arms Park despite live coverage on BBC Wales television confirming its billing as the biggest Anglo-Welsh club match ever.

Between them, the sides boast 23 major domestic titles since 1981, while more than 20 full internationalists could be involved in a clash that has Wales versus England written all over it.

Bath's Scottish international scrum-half Andy Nicol is expected to return after injury.

In Saturday's other quarter-finals, English rivals Leicester and Harlequins come face to face at Welford Road, while French giants Dax and Toulouse meet head on. Llanelli visit tournament favourites Brive on Sunday.

The semi-finals are scheduled for January 4 and 5, with the final on January 25 when both teams are guaranteed a #30,000 pay-out.

Meanwhile, Bath are planning a two-match tour of South Africa next summer.

They hope to play Natal in Durban and

Western Province at Newlands, Cape Town.