The IRB Pacific Nations Cup returns in June with the inclusion of a new team and heightened interest generated by the impressive performance of the Pacific Island Unions and Japan at Rugby World Cup 2007. The New Zealand Maori will join Australia A, Fiji, Japan, Samoa and Tonga in the Tournament which features fifteen matches played in six countries over five weeks.
"The 2007 IRB Pacific Nations Cup, won by the Junior All Blacks, was the most competitive to date, generating high-quality Rugby and providing an expanded Test schedule for the Pacific Island Unions. It also captured the imagination of the Rugby community, with well-attended matches and strong broadcast coverage," said IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset.
"The IRB Pacific Nations Cup has grown in two years to become a key event on the global Rugby calendar and plays a significant development role for each of the participating Unions, as highlighted by the number of players who graduated through the Tournament to represent their country at the Rugby World Cup.
"Rugby World Cup 2007 was the most competitive RWC to date and the performances of Fiji, Japan, Samoa and Tonga significantly revealed that our investment in new Tournament structures, high performance and Union infrastructure programmes are already reaping rewards," said Lapasset.
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The importance of the Tournament has been highlighted by Fiji head coach Ilie Tabua, who last year guided his team to the quarter-finals of a Rugby World Cup for the first time since the inaugural event in 1987.
"The Pacific Nations Cup provides a valuable platform for us to test our local players. As two-thirds of Fiji's Rugby World Cup 2007 squad were based overseas, we began the 2007 Pacific Nations Cup with heavy reliance on the locally-based amateurs. This allowed us to see which were capable of stepping up a notch to reach Test Rugby, and some went on to excel themselves at the Rugby World Cup," Tabua said.
"We need to set challenges for these young players and prime them for national duty. Come Rugby World Cup 2011, I expect a large percentage of the squad will have gone through the Pacific Nations Cup, which has given us an important schedule of regular Test matches."
The 2008 Tournament will be the first to feature the famous New Zealand Maori, who replace two-time champions the Junior All Blacks as New Zealand's representatives in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup. The move comes as a result of a thorough strategic review by the NZRU.
"The New Zealand Maori team has been tremendously successful in recent years, winning the Barclays Churchill Cup twice in the past three years and has an excellent reputation of developing young talent for the Test arena. The inclusion of New Zealand Maori will enhance the IRB Pacific Nations Cup's highly competitive format as well as the unique cultural element of the tournament. I am sure that the 2008 Tournament will be the most competitive to date," said Lapasset.
The Tournament kicks off with three mouth-watering fixtures as Fiji host Samoa in Lautoka and New Zealand Maori make their IRB Pacific Nations Cup debut against Tonga in Albany on Saturday, June 7. The following day 2007 runners-up Australia A are hosted by Japan in Fukuoka.
Other highlights will include the Rugby World Cup replays between Tonga and Samoa and Japan against Fiji. Samoa will be out to exact revenge after the Tongans defeated their close rivals for the first time in seven years during a memorable match in Montpellier. Likewise, the Japanese will be out to reverse the result of their thrilling encounter in Toulouse where they were defeated 35-31 by eventual quarter-finalists Fiji.