Dominiko Waqaniburotu, who captained Fiji to an historic 21-14 win over France in Paris last November, will lead his country in the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2019 as the defending champions look to add a sixth title to their collection.
The flanker is one of 18 players out of a squad of 31 to return from last year’s triumphant group and featured in the recent 27-10 win over the Maori All Blacks, Fiji's first success against New Zealand side since 1957.
Scrum-half Henry Seniloli, their two-try hero in the Pacific Nation Cup-clinching win over Georgia, is another to return 12 months on. Frank Lomani, one of five locally-based players in the squad, will provide Seniloli with competition for the number nine jersey.
It's after 62 years Fiji Airways Flying Fijians have managed to beat Maori All Blacks. What a game its was 27-10 infront of the home crowd. Click below to read the game review#itsfijistime: https://t.co/4ThHvKx8Pc— Fiji Rugby Union (@fijirugby) July 13, 2019
Top European stars such as Racing 92’s Leone Nakarawa and the equally destructive Edinburgh forward Viliame Mata are also present in a high-quality squad that strikes a nice balance between experience and up-and-coming talent.
There is also a welcome return for Stade Francais centre Waisea Nayacalevu, who has endured a couple of injury-plagued seasons with the Parisian club. His last cap for Fiji came against Japan in November 2016.
The road to Rugby World Cup 2019 continues in Suva this Saturday with a second match against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua.
Brave Blossoms call on Rugby World Cup experience
A week later, the game’s flagship tournament will seem even closer as the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium, the venue for their RWC 2019 match against Uruguay, on 19 September, stages Fiji’s Pacific Nations Cup opener against Japan.
Rugby World Cup experience runs right the way through Japan’s squad for this tournament.
Second-row Luke Thompson’s inclusion points to him appearing at a fourth Rugby World Cup, and he is named alongside a host of other RWC 2015 veterans such as captain and flanker Michael Leitch, hooker Shota Horie and scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka.
Tight-head prop Yusuke Kizu, 23, is one of three uncapped players set to get their first taste of senior international rugby. James Moore and Pieter Labuschagne are the others. Jiwon Koo was named in the original squad but had to withdraw through injury and Shogo Miura has been called up as a replacement.
Last year’s runners-up Tonga begin their bid to win the Pacific Nations Cup for the first time in its 14-year history with an encounter against Samoa in Apia.
I have gone through so many mental challenges and some physical obviously with surgery and chemo.— Nasi Manu (@Nasi_Manu) February 19, 2019
The whole experience has given me perspective on life, what’s really important to me and how I want to start living moving forward. Thank you to everyone for your love and support. https://t.co/EJUWskDHsD
Inspirational Manu returns for Tonga
Nasi Manu headlines the ‘Ikale Tahi’s 31-man squad, making his return after beating cancer.
The 31-year-old Benetton Treviso loose forward missed the entire PRO14 season after being diagnosed with testicular cancer at the end of last year, but has made a remarkable recovery and is now ready to add to the three caps that he won in 2018.
Winger Viliame Lolohea, who scored within six minutes of his international debut in last year’s competition, gets a chance to build on his encouraging start to test rugby, while coach Toutai Kefu has named four newcomers in his squad in prop Toma Taufa, second-row Sam Lousi, fly-half James Faiva and centre Otumaka Mausia.
Lousi, who is set to move from the Hurricanes to the Scarlets in Wales, will be particularly keen to make a favourable impression after missing much of the Super Rugby season with a pectoral injury.
Domestic bliss for Samoa
Opening day opponents Samoa include a handful of stars from their domestic Super 9 league in prop Alofaaga Sao, flanker Tofatuimoana Solia and winger Johnny Vaili.
Second-row Senio Toleafoa, number eight Afa Amosa, Ulupano Seuteni, former New Zealand and Samoa sevens star Belgium Tuatagaloa and Western Force flanker Henry Stowers have also been included for the first time.
It means that there are more new faces in the squad than players with previous Rugby World Cup experience. Only four players who appeared at England 2015 – Motu Matu’u, Teofilo Paulo, Jack Lam and Rey Lee-lo – have made the cut, while Logovi’i Mulipola represented Samoa in New Zealand four years earlier.
The USA begin their campaign with an all-America affair against border rivals Canada.
Olympians ready to send Eagles soaring
Two members of the USA Sevens squad that recently booked their place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, captain Madison Hughes and Martin Iosefo, get the chance to shine for the Eagles in 15s.
Rookie hooker/prop David Ainu’u is an Olympian of sorts in that he was born in the Washington State capital of Olympia and, at 19 years of age, he is easily the youngest member of the Eagles’ Pacific Nations Cup squad.
Ainu’u has enjoyed a meteoric rise since leaving school, winning five caps for the Eagles – a tally he is set to add to in the coming weeks – as well as making his Top 14 and European Champions Cup debut for French giants Toulouse.
At the other end of the experience scale is captain Blaine Scully, the 46-times capped utility back who is on the verge of appearing at his third Rugby World Cup.
What. A. Season. Defending @usmlr champs @Seawolves_Rugby defended their title with help from some stellar Canadian talent! Catch up on the championship match and so much more with @raysrugby #MLRugby season wrap up #RugbyCA #RC15s https://t.co/euoJyLuZVQ pic.twitter.com/84DnVuyYM3— Rugby Canada (@RugbyCanada) June 20, 2019
MLR Champions boost Canada
While Major League Rugby (MLR) champions Seattle Seawolves are not represented in the USA squad, three can be found in the Canadian ranks in scrum-half Phil Mack, prop Jake Ilnicki and winger Jeff Hassler, all of whom played at RWC 2015. MLR rivals the Toronto Arrows boast an eight-strong contingent – the largest of any single club team.
Centre Ciaran Hearn is in line to play in a third Rugby World Cup after being named in Kingsley Jones’ squad for the Pacific Nations Cup. One more cap and the 33-year-old will overtake Winston Stanley and become the third-highest Canadian appearance-maker of all time in his own right.
Record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe is the most notable of the seven overseas-based stars as the Glasgow winger prepares to play at a fourth Rugby World Cup and perhaps realise a dream of playing against the nation of his birth, South Africa, for the first time.
All the squads are still subject to change before the Pacific Nations Cup kicks off on 27 July.