Fiji Warriors, Samoa A and Tonga A had the edge in the Australian Series of the new-look IRB Pacific Rugby Cup, but face a “completely different challenge” with the competition moving to New Zealand for matches against three Super Rugby development teams.
The Pacific Island teams won five and drew one of the nine matches on Australian soil against the Brumby Runners, QAS Reds Academy and Junior Waratahs with Samoa A and Fiji Warriors leading the race to be crowned 2011 champions with nine points, three more than Tonga A.
Samoa A and Fiji Warriors both enoyed two victories in the Australia Series, while Tonga A drew with the Brumby Runners before getting their first win against the QAS Reds Academy earlier this week, with all nine matches producing entertaining rugby with plenty of passion and commitment from all involved.
Development sides from the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Chiefs now enter the fray for the second element of a three-series tournament which climaxes with a round robin between the Pacific Island teams in Fiji later this month.
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William Glenwright, the IRB General Manager for Oceania, admits he will be watching the latest Series unfold with interest, having been delighted by the way the Australian element of the Pacific Rugby Cup unfolded.
“We are very pleased with the restructured Pacific Rugby Cup on a number of levels,” admitted Glenwright. “Obviously we have been very pleased with the results so far with the Pacific Island teams having won five and drawn one of their nine games in total against good opposition in Australia.
“It's the first real indication that we've had in our five year investment in High Performance Rugby in the Pacific Islands that the Licensed Training Centres that we have established are producing international quality players.
“Almost all of the players in the three teams have progressed through their respective High Performance Programmes and to compete with, let alone beat, the next generation of professional footballers in Australia, shows that we are on the right track.
“The feedback from all teams has been very positive. The Pacific Islands are loving the opportunity to test their best local players against such high quality opposition. With Australia and New Zealand no longer represented in the Pacific Nations Cup this is a unique opportunity for the Pacific island players to test themselves against players from two of the top rugby playing nations in the world.
“They are being exposed to some of the world's best professional team structures and staying in world class High Performance centres like the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and the Millennium Institute in Auckland. The peripheral benefits of the restructured PRC complement the direct rugby benefits that are derived from playing Academy teams from Super Rugby franchises.
“For the Australian and New Zealand based teams, the PRC is an opportunity for fringe Super Rugby players to stake a claim for selection in the top squad and already we are seeing a number of players being called up from the Academy teams into the Super Rugby teams."
Putting structures to the test
It is not only on the field that the Pacific Island teams have been gaining valuable experiences in their build up to Rugby World Cup 2011, but off it as well with team structures being put to the test which can only bode well for the future.
“The tight turnaround between games is also putting pressure on the off-field structures of the three teams and we're happy to see that,” explained Glenwright.
“The three teams have had to put a lot of work into their recovery and athlete management systems to ensure that the small time in between games is maximised and that there is a balance between recovery, travel, injury management and training.
“Whilst they won't play in another tournament as intensive as this, in terms of the number of matches within a confined window, the structure of the PRC does force the Unions to establish and test recovery protocols to use in bigger tournaments like the PNC and Rugby World Cup, where they may have a tight turn around between two games.”
The opening round of matches in the New Zealand Series see the Crusader Knights take on Fiji Warriors and the Chiefs Development XV meet Tonga A on Friday, before the Hurricanes Development XV host Samoa A on Saturday.
“The New Zealand Series is going to be a completely different challenge as they have a different Academy structure to that of Australia. The Pacific Island teams will be heading over the ditch with their tails in the air and the New Zealand teams have a better idea of the quality of opposition they will be facing.
“After three games the Pacific Island teams will be feeling pretty sore and tired so they will really need to lift against fresh opposition. In that regard we will be watching the results in New Zealand with interest.”
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