The Fiji Warriors will be hoping that the new-look IRB Pacific Rugby Cup does not automatically mean a new name is etched on the trophy as they begin their title defence in Australia on Saturday.
The tournament, now in its sixth year, will be played outside the Pacific Islands for the first time as A teams from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga test themselves against the very best up and coming Super Rugby talent in both Australia and New Zealand before returning to Fiji for the round robin final leg which will determine who is crowned 2011 champions.
“Previously we had two representative teams from each of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga but now we just have one from each country representing the best locally-based players available,” said IRB General Manager for Oceania Will Glenwright on the eve of the revamped Cup.
“Over 44 players have already graduated from Fiji, Samoa and Tonga progressing from the Pacific Rugby Cup to Test Rugby and that’s what the tournament was designed to do so in that regard it has been successful.
“As part of the review we did into the tournament there appeared a growing gap between locally-based Pacific Island players and those playing professional Rugby in Europe so this new format is an attempt to close that gap further and provide a higher level of competition from outside the Pacific Islands for those locally-based players.".
Super Rugby development teams Junior Waratahs, Brumby Runners and QAS Reds Academy provide the opponents for Tonga A, Samoa A and Fiji Warriors respectively on the opening day, with further matches in the Australia leg played on 23 and 28 February.
The tournament kicks off with Tonga A, who last ran out at the Americas Rugby Championship in October last year, play the Junior Waratahs at Foreshaw Rugby Park. The Tongans have opted to blend youth and experience, and will be captained by Josateki Veikune who has played in the last two Pacific Rugby Cups with the 30-year-old scrum half Soane Havea already having 24 full international caps under his belt.
Samoa A face the Brumby Runners in the second match of the day at Canberra Stadium, led by their experienced captain fly half Roger Warren.
Samoa Rugby Union vice-chairman Lefau Harry Schuster knows the benefits the new tournament can provide, particularly in a Rugby World Cup year and the Samoa A team features seven players who have no experience of international duty at any level.
“We do have people like Faatonu Fili, Tasesa Lavea and Roger Warren in the mix at crucial positions but through these competitions, we’re hoping to identify others that will strengthen this match-winning area,” said Schuster.
Schuster said Samoa wanted to maintain momentum leading into the World Cup in New Zealand after the national side enjoyed a revival last year which included being crowned IRB Sevens World Series champions.
“We know we have one of the most difficult (World Cup) pools. With South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Namibia, it’s not a pushover, so we need to get our preparations and logistics close to an exact science.”
Fiji Warriors round off the action on day one, taking on the QAS Reds Academy team in Ballymore. The reigning champions have opted for a more experienced side, with 10 of the starting 15 enjoying Pacific Rugby Cup action last year, albeit Josateki Nasilisili and Penijamini Makutu represented losing finalists the Fiji Barbarians.
With one team per Island nation in 2011, the competition for places has increased within teams, as has the level of opposition providing a perfect platform to fine-tune Rugby World Cup preparations.
Fiji Warriors, Samoa A and Tonga A will head to New Zealand following the Australian leg for matches against a Crusaders Development XV, Chiefs Development XV and Hurricanes Development XV over three rounds beginning on March 4.
The tournament culminates with a Pacific Island Series where Fiji Warriors, Samoa A and Tonga A will play each other over three match days on March 19, 22 and 26.