With Rugby World Cup 2015 looming large on the horizon this World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup is proving the most competitive yet and going into Wednesday’s final round of pool matches only Canada cannot reach the title decider.
The Canadians, who will host the final two rounds of the 2015 edition in Toronto and Vancouver, have lost both their matches, to Japan and Tonga, and prop up the overall standings that will determine the ranking matches that will conclude the competition on Monday.
Fiji and Samoa currently occupy the top two positions with seven points after playing out an exciting 30-30 draw in Sacramento last Friday, the Flying Fijians sitting top by virtue of a point differential just three points better than their Pacific Island rivals.
If they can remain unbeaten by overcoming Japan and hosts Canada respectively on Wednesday then they will be set for a rematch to determine who will be crowned Pacific Nations Cup 2015 champions in Vancouver.
However, if they slip up then Japan, USA and Tonga will all be hoping to claim a final berth. Japan and USA currently sit third and fourth with five points after the Eagles beat their RWC 2015 Pool B opponents 23-18 in round two. Tonga are a point behind after a 28-18 win over Canada.
Fiji coach John McKee wants nothing less than victory against Japan and has again rung the changes to his starting line-up, second-row Leone Nakarawa who scored a brace of tries against Samoa one of only five players to retain their places.
“This is a very important match in terms of both our RWC preparation and this tournament. We require a win to progress to the final and a possible re-match with Samoa,” McKee said
“I expect Japan to field a stronger team than what went down in a close game with the US on Friday. Japan plays a very up-tempo game. We will need to be patient in controlling field position and not get caught playing too much in our half.
Big names in for Japan
“I am very pleased with the way the squad has trained this week and expect to see this transfer into a strong performance in Wednesday’s game.”
McKee’s prediction was correct with coach Eddie Jones bringing in some big guns with captain Michael Leitch, number eight Hendrik Tui and scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka all coming in after joining the squad as medical replacements this week.
Also coming back into the starting line-up are hooker Shota Horie, full-back Ayumu Goromaru, centre Yu Tamura and flying wing Kenki Fukuoka after they were rested for the loss to the USA in round two.
Jones will be hoping that the experience of this trio – including Tanaka who joins the Brave Blossoms fresh from becoming the first Japanese player to win the Super Rugby title with the Highlanders – can see his side bounce back against the higher ranked Fijians, who they last beat in 2011.
Samoa have retained more than half of their starting XV – including centre Paul Perez who scored two of their tries against Fiji – as they look to continue their record of never having lost to Canada before, all four meetings going the way of the Pacific Islanders.
"It just shows the quality of the opposition we have at the Pacific Nations Cup and I think all in all it is good preparation for the World Cup as well."
Canada, however, will be eager to give their home crowd something to cheer about by picking up a first victory of the competition and coach Kieran Crowley has rung the changes as he looks for an 80-minute performance from his players.
Only captain Tyler Ardron, his fellow back-row John Moonlight and back Matt Evans remain in the starting line-up to face Samoa with young prop Djustice Sears-Duru given his first start and second-row Evan Olmstead his test debut.
Good preparation for RWC 2015
Tonga, while buoyed by their victory over Canada last time out, will face the USA Eagles without their captain Nili Latu due to a calf injury, with Steve Mafi moving to the blindside and taking over the leadership reins.
“It could be anybody’s game at the moment, you have just got to respect every opposition,” Tonga coach Mana Otai said.
“It just shows the quality of the opposition we have at the Pacific Nations Cup and I think all in all it is a good preparation for the World Cup as well for all the teams involved.
The ‘Ikale Tahi have won their last six meetings with the USA, including a 40-12 victory in their previous meeting in Gloucester in November. The USA’s only win in the series was the first meeting back in 1999, but then they hadn’t beaten Japan for 12 years before last Friday’s upset.
USA coach Mike Tolkin has made 13 changes to his starting XV for this match at BMO Field with only Cam Dolan and Scott LaValla remaining, although both will wear different jerseys this time. Toby L’Estrange returns for the first time in over a year following injury, while Chris Baumann will make his debut in the front row.
“It’s been a short week, so training has been about getting the starting team more reps, but in doing that we are trying to constantly improve the way we play the game,” Tolkin said. “There are new faces in this squad, which is good for getting important playing-time experience to all players in the squad.
“You always take away information from teams you play and we did from last time, but besides a few small things, the Tongan team is never predictable in the way they play the game.”
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