As the dust – and mud – settles in Australia following the first series of the IRB Pacific Rugby Cup 2012, all eyes shift to New Zealand for the second series of this key player development tournament.
It is here that the best locally-based players from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga will take on the next generation of stars from New Zealand’s five Super Rugby provinces over the next couple of weeks.
The Pacific Island teams have arrived in New Zealand on the back of a largely successful tour of Australia, having won five of the eight matches played, the final round match between the Brumby Runners and Tonga A having been cancelled because of inclement weather.
Samoa A were the only unbeaten side in the Australian series after beating Queensland A, the Junior Waratahs and the Brumby Runners to accumulate 12 points, three more than Fiji Warriors.
"Improving game by game"
The defending champions bounced back well from an opening loss to Queensland A to record wins over the Brumby Runners and Junior Waratahs, to the delight of new national team coach Inoke Male.
“Our performance in Australia has been pleasing with the players improving from game to game. It was disappointing to lose the first game against Queensland A, a team we’d beaten last year,” admitted Male.
“However, to their credit the players came together and put on a great defensive effort to outlast the Brumby Runners and then showed wonderful glimpses of their attacking prowess to overrun the Junior Waratahs.”
Tonga A are the only side yet to taste victory and have just two points in the standings, the cancelled match against the Brumby Runners declared a 0-0 draw with both earning two points as per the tournament rules.
The Tongans, though, have been boosted by the inclusion of Rugby World Cup 2011 representative Samisoni Fisilau. He actually played against Tonga A for the Chiefs Development XV last year, but has been brought in to bolster the side for what is expected to be a rugged New Zealand tour.
A bigger challenge
The Fiji Warriors have been handed a boost of their own with the inclusion of Sevens dynamo Watisoni Votu, who excelled for Fiji in the opening legs of the HSBC Sevens World Series in the Gold Coast, Dubai and Port Elizabeth last year.
Votu will bring added flair to a backline that boasted the second best attacking record in the Australian series and which is brimming with confidence. However Inoke Male is wary of the challenge that lies ahead for the Warriors in the New Zealand series.
“With due respect to the Australian teams we’re expecting the matches in New Zealand to be just that bit harder and more intense,” explained Male.
“We’ve got arguably the strongest team in the tournament first up – the Crusader Knights – so it’s certainly going to be an opportunity for us to draw a line in the sand and make a statement about how far our local players have come along over the last two seasons. No doubt it’s going to be tough in New Zealand but I’m very optimistic about our chances.”
Male’s wariness is understandable given the torrid time the Pacific Islands teams experienced in New Zealand last year. The New Zealand teams won all but one of the matches in 2011 – many of them of them convincingly – with Samoa A the only Islanders to record taste victory after an 18-17 thriller with the Chiefs Development XV.
The challenge will be even harder this year with all five of the New Zealand Super Rugby development teams participating in the tournament with the Blues Development to make their debut in the competition against Tonga A on Friday at Pakuranga Rugby Club in Auckland.
The same day will see the Crusader Knights face Fiji Warriors at Rugby Park in Christchurch, while the Chiefs Development will take on Samoa A at Growers Stadium in Pukekohe on Saturday. The Highlanders Development team will make their debut in round two with the Hurricanes entering the fray in round three.
Any points that the Pacific Island teams can collect in New Zealand could prove vital when it comes to crowning the champions following the Pacific series later in the year. This series will be held in the build up to the northern hemisphere tours in November, allowing the home grown players to push for selection.
The IRB Pacific Rugby Cup is a core component of the IRB Strategic Investment Initiative designed to improve the competitiveness of international Rugby. The IRB has committed over NZ$1million to the successful hosting of the competition in 2012.
However, it is not only the three core teams that benefit from the tournament with Blues Development coach Jeff Wilson and his Chiefs counterpart Kevin Schuler only too aware of the benefits to their franchise’s up and coming players.
“The Pacific Rugby Cup is an important part of our development programme. Giving our players the opportunity to play quality oppositions in this environment exposes them to the next level of rugby,” said Wilson.
Schuler added: “This is a great opportunity for our upcoming players to get some meaningful first-class rugby under their belts early in the season. It is a great tournament and a good experience for the Pacific Island nations to play some development rugby in New Zealand.”