Players from Fiji, Tonga and Georgia will be looking to catch the eye over the next two weekends at the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2018 and press home their claims to be involved at Rugby World Cup 2019, while for Samoa this year’s tournament represents a golden opportunity to fine-tune their game plan ahead of a crunch play-off clash against Germany or Portugal.
Samoa will face home-and-away games against European opposition, on 30 June and 14 July, for the right to go to Japan as the Play-Off winner and join Ireland, Scotland, Japan and Russia in Pool A. Victory over the higher-ranked Fiji in this weekend’s opening round of the Pacific Nations Cup would give them a massive confidence boost as well as enhancing their chances of lifting the trophy for the first time since 2014.
1 day to go until the Pacific Nations Cup kicks-off with @officialTongaRU V @GeorgianRugby and @manusamoa taking on last years champions @fijirugby #PNC2018 🇹🇴 V 🇬🇪 🇼🇸 V 🇫🇯— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 2, 2018
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Fiji have won the last three titles and qualified automatically for RWC 2019 after finishing as the top-ranked team across the 2016 and 2017 competitions.
Huge respect exists between the teams both on and off the field, but Samoa captain Chris Vui insists the title favourites will know they have been in a game whatever the end result.
“The boys have been working really hard during training,” the imposing second-row said. “Fiji have got a good forward pack, but we should be up for the challenge.”
Vui, who had an injury-disrupted title-winning campaign with Bristol in English rugby’s second tier, is joined in the Samoa starting XV by club team-mates Tusi Pisi and Jack Ram.
The side also features two debutants in Harlequins number eight Mat Luamanu and winger Ed Fidow, while fly-half Rodney Iona will win his first cap if he steps off the bench.
As always in this fixture, no quarter will be asked or given. “It will be a physical battle, very brutal, but this is our home turf and we will not give the win away so easily,” stated Fiji centre Jale Vatubua.
While not looking beyond Saturday’s match against Samoa, Vatubua makes no secret of the fact that the prospect of playing at RWC 2019 is never far from his thoughts. “I’m also working hard to win a place for the Rugby World Cup next year. Everyone has been fighting for their spot as it will be an honour to represent my country.”
Vatubua is joined in midfield by Sevanaia Galala, the only debutant in an otherwise experienced Fijian line-up led for the 37th time in a test by veteran number eight Akapusi Qera. European Player of the Year Leone Nakarawa is named in the second row and English Premiership Player of the Year Vereneki Goneva starts on the wing.
Apart from Galala, three players – Ratu Veremalua Vugakoto, Eroni Mawi and Alivereti Veitokani – will make their debut off the bench.
Played at the ANZ Stadium in the Fijian capital of Suva, the 2018 edition takes on a round-robin format with the title going to the side accruing most competition points over the two rounds.
Fiji’s match with Samoa follows the tournament curtain-raiser between two in-form sides in Tonga and Georgia.
Tonga beat Romania 25-20 in Bucharest in their last outing in November and will take 12th place off Georgia in the World Rugby Rankings if they win on Saturday.
The 'Ikale Tahi have won five of their last eight tests, only losing to the higher-ranked Japan, Fiji and Wales in that time, while Georgia are on a six-match winning run after capturing the Rugby Europe Championship title with ease.
Despite being new to the Pacific Nations Cup, Milton Haig’s side have fond memories of the region having completed an unbeaten tour there in 2016.
Haig hands David Kacharava a record-equalling 110th cap at centre, although he may not share it with Merab Kvirikashvili for long as the full-back is named among the replacements and will set a new landmark if he comes on. Fit-again forward Kote Mikautadze is also on the bench and ready to play his first game for the Lelos since suffering an injury in training back in February.
Meanwhile, Siale Piutau captains Tonga from inside-centre as the 'Ikale Tahi hand debuts to three players – tight-head prop David Lolohea, former New Zealand U20 number eight Nasi Manu and full-back Sione Fifita.
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Photo: Bruce Southwick / Zoomfiji