As has been the case since 2016, Fiji Warriors are joined by the A teams of Samoa and Tonga and Junior Japan for the World Rugby Pacific Challenge – a tournament that plays a key role in the development pathway for all the countries involved.
No less than 39 players have used the Pacific Challenge as a springboard to the test arena since it adopted the current format four years ago, and seven of those ‘graduates’ – Frank Lomani, Eroni Mawi, Mesulame Dolokoto, Tuvere Vugakoto, Mosese Voka (all Fiji), Melani Matavao (Samoa) and James Faiva (Tonga) – all appeared at Rugby World Cup 2019, while Yusuke Kizu was in Japan's tournament squad but wasn't selected in a match-day 23.
As the team that has dominated the competition, Fiji Warriors have supplied the most capped players with 14, who boast exactly 100 caps between them.
Fiji Warriors are led in their first game against Samoa A by fly-half Tuidraki Samusamuvodre, the scorer of four tries in last year’s tournament, one in which the rampant Warriors delighted the home fans in Suva with some electric rugby, running in a tournament-record 28 tries.
Samusamuvodre insists his side will be doing everything they can to maintain their iron-like grip on the trophy, starting with what would be a 14th consecutive win in the competition on Friday.
Team Announcement— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) March 5, 2020
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“Expectations are really high,” he said. “We’ve won this title for the past few years, so we’ll try to follow that up.”
Samusamuvodre is one of five players in the Warriors’ starting XV to have experienced the Pacific Challenge before. Centre Filimoni Savou will actually be competing in his third tournament, having previously played in 2017 and 2019.
No fewer than 11 players in Friday’s line-up have come through the Fiji under-20 system, and seven of them were in the squad that avoided relegation from the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2019 with an electric final day defeat of Scotland.
“It’s going to be a really tough game against Samoa, they always bring the physicality,” Samusamuvodre added.
“The boys have been doing well at training, focusing on physicality and endurance. We’ll bring our Fijian style of play, along with a structured game against Samoa.”
The famous name game
Samoa include just two players with past experience of the tournament in their starting line-up – tight-head Noel Sanft and centre Niulevaea Iosi, who is vice-captain to number eight Joseph Faleafaga and a veteran of the 2015 and 2016 tournaments. Sanft, himself, played in the 2018 edition.
Pulling the strings at fly-half is Philippe Sella Fale Toelupe, presumably named in homage to the great France player of the 1980s and 90s.
Samoa A were on the wrong end of a 48-16 scoreline when they played Fiji Warriors 12 months ago and Faleafaga is all too aware of the threat posed by the home side.
“We’re expecting a good game from Fiji, they have always brought a big game the last couple of years and we expect nothing different from them tomorrow,” he said.
“But we expect a lot from ourselves. Like other teams, our main goal is to take back the trophy with us.
“So far, we’re doing really well and have worked on a lot of the things we needed to work on. We’re pretty confident with what we have, so hopefully we execute it really well.”
Junior Japan looking to go one better
Nine of Junior Japan's starting XV helped their country to win the World Rugby U20 Trophy title in 2019 and promotion to this year’s World Rugby U20 Championship, including flanker Halatoa Vailea who weighed in with seven tries in Brazil.
Runners-up for the last three years, Junior Japan begin their 2020 campaign against Tonga A, a side they beat 39-10 in 2019.
“They (Tonga) have a strong and physical team, so we are trying to play hi-tempo rugby as we always do. We have a lot of stamina and we hope that’s what will get us the win over Tonga,” said captain Mashiko Sagara.
“We are finally getting used to the (humid) weather here in Fiji, and we are training and preparing much better now. We hope that we can win.”
Oneone ready to turn the clock back
Tonga A are captained by experienced fly-half Patelesio Oneone, who turns 24 in two weeks' time.
Oneone appeared in the Pacific Challenge back in 2016, kicking five conversions and a couple of penalties from scrum-half in a 44-30 win over Junior Japan, which remains their only success to date against the Asian side at this level.
Second-row Finepolo Maafu, openside Taniela Pongi and centre Leonatasi Feke are all survivors from last year’s Pacific Challenge campaign.
Junior Japan have the honour of kicking off the tournament at the ANZ Stadium with the all-Pacific affair between Fiji Warriors and Samoa A following straight after.