A proven breeding ground for talent

(IRB.COM) Thursday 6 November 2008
 A proven breeding ground for talent
Try scorer: Drew Mitchell is one of 18 players in the Wallabies touring squad to have played in the IRB Pacific Nations Cup

The IRB Pacific Nations Cup has in its three-year history become a key development tool for the likes of Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Japan - an arena in which to give players a taste of the international game and the standards needed to make it in the top echelons.

However the same is also true for New Zealand and Australia with half of their two squads for the November Tests in Hong Kong and Europe having either cut their teeth in the Pacific Nations Cup or used it as a springboard back to the national side.

The likes of Piri Weepu and Corey Flynn, both named in the All Blacks squad to face Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, are prime examples of comeback kids with hooker Flynn poised for his first Test cap in four years.

Flynn captained the Junior All Blacks to the inaugural title in 2006 and also made two appearances the following year as the title was retained with relative ease, having not played for the All Blacks since coming off the bench against Italy on 13 November 2004.

Weepu's experience of the Pacific Nations Cup is more recent, helping the New Zealand Maori - who had replaced the Junior All Blacks - to the 2008 crown and pressing his case for a recall after the heartbreak of not making the All Blacks squad for RWC 2007.

New caps are PNC veterans

Three tries in five matches and a revitalised Weepu is back in favour, having made five appearances off the bench for New Zealand in the last three months, including last weekend's historic Bledisloe Cup match in Hong Kong.

Weepu, though, is not the only scrum half in the touring squad to have turned out in the Pacific Nations Cup as Andrew Ellis and Jimmy Cowan alternated the number nine jersey throughout the 2007 competition.

They are not alone in having sampled the Pacific Nations Cup in this New Zealand tour squad with no fewer than 17 of the 35 players now in Europe - following Hikawera Elliot's call up to replace the injured Andrew Hore - falling into that category.

Cory Jane and Hosea Gear, who both made their All Black debuts in Hong Kong against Australia, had both previously cut their teeth in the Pacific Nations Cup, as have Liam Messam and Kieran Read ahead of their own debuts this weekend against Scotland.

Messam captained New Zealand Maori to the title earlier this year, a campaign which saw Gear - whose older brother Rico also played in the competition in 2007 - score a hat-trick of tries off the bench in a 65-22 defeat of Japan.

This was not the first time Messam has captained a New Zealand side to a title, having led their Sevens team to the IRB Sevens World Series crown in 2004/05 and been earmarked as a player to watch in the future.

Twelve 'PNC veterans' await Scotland

The Maori squad in 2008 also featured members of this All Black touring squad in Jason Eaton and Ross Filipo along with uncapped duo Scott Waldrom and Elliot, while full back Jane and Read played for the Junior All Blacks in the 2007 competition.

With the exception of Eaton, the others all made - or will make - their All Black debuts after coming through the Pacific Nations Cup, along with the likes of Anthony Boric, Anthony Tuitavake and Stephen Donald.

Tuitavake was a regular try scorer for the Junior All Blacks in 2006 and 2007, while Donald shared the fly half duties with Jimmy Gopperth in the inaugural competition and then Stephen Brett a year later.

Donald and Tuitavake both start against Scotland, two of eight players in the starting XV to have played Pacific Nations Cup rugby. The others being John Afoa, Boric, Read, Messam, Weepu and Ma'a Nonu, who made two try scoring appearances in 2007.

Another four occupy a place on the bench in Flynn, Filipo, Ellis and Jane, while the rested Jerome Kaino is the other member of the touring party to have shown that the Pacific Nations Cup is a pathway to the Test arena.

Strength in numbers for Australia

Australia, meanwhile, have now announced their team to face Italy on Saturday in Padova in the opening Test of their European tour with nine players in the starting XV having played in the Pacific Nations Cup, plus another three on the bench.

The Pacific Nations Cup was expanded in 2007 to include Australia A and no fewer than 18 members of Robbie Deans' tourists have played in the competition, including Drew Mitchell - scorer of the Wallabies' two tries against New Zealand in Hong Kong.

Mitchell scored two tries off the bench on his Pacific Nations Cup debut earlier this year in the 90-7 defeat of Tonga, a match which had an incredible 10 members of this touring squad in its starting line up.

Ben Alexander, Sekope Kepu, Mark Chisholm, Peter Kimlin, Hugh McMeniman and Richard Brown were in the forwards, Brett Sheehan, Digby Ioane, Timana Tahu and Lachlan Turner the backs - plus of course Mitchell on the bench.

In fact when you look at the other five, four of them had previously been capped by the Wallabies in Sean Hardman, Sam Norton-Knight, captain Morgan Turinui and Stephen Hoiles - a four-try hero in the win - with wing Matt Carraro the exception.

Wallaby debuts follow PNC experiences

Turner has been a regular try scorer in the competition with seven in his six appearances, including a hat-trick against Tonga in Australia A's debut in 2007, while wing Ioane and centre Tahu also got their name on the score sheets in this year's tournament.

Two other try scorers in that debut victory over Tonga were hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau and centre Ryan Cross. They both went on to start every match that year with rugby league convert Cross in particular proving his credentials as a Wallaby in the making with some impressive performances.

Half backs Sam Cordingley and Berrick Barnes also started that match, as did Dean Mumm and David Pocock on the flanks, while prop Al Baxter appeared in the next victory over Samoa.

Pocock became the newest Wallaby last weekend with his late appearance off the bench, only a couple of months after captaining Australia's Under 20s side to fifth place at the IRB Junior World Championship in Wales.

The 20-year-old is one of 11 members in the touring squad to have made - or will make in Kimlin and Kepu's case - their Wallaby debut after playing in the Pacific Nations Cup in Alexander, Cross, Brown, Mumm, Barnes, Ioane, Tahu and Turner.

The Pacific Nations Cup's position as a grounding for the Test arena is further highlighted by the fact that all bar three of the Pacific Islanders team to face England at Twickenham on Saturday have played in the competition for Fiji, Samoa or Tonga.