IRB Pacific Nations CUP
By Indra Singh
The 2011 IRB Pacific Nations Cup gets underway in Fiji and Japan this weekend with all four participating nations kicking off their Rugby World Cup preparations and testing their squads.
This year’s event, between Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Japan, was originally due to be hosted in Japan, but the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan earthquake on 11 March, and resulting tsunami and nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, changed everything.
All but Japan’s opening fixture, against defending champions Samoa in Tokyo this weekend, will now be played in the Fijian towns of Lautoka and Suva over three match days on 2, 9 and 13 July. In the other fixture on the opening day Fiji face Tonga.
The IRB-funded tournament is set to provide an intriguing form guide ahead of the Rugby World Cup with all four nations able to test their best available players before naming their final squads of 30 for New Zealand.
Kirwan: One eye on the World Cup
Japan and their coach John Kirwan will be looking for a repeat of last year’s performance against Samoa, whom they beat 31-23 in Apia.
“We’ve had one month of the Asian 5 Nations, then we had a 10-day camp and now we have the Pacific Nations Cup, which has been incredibly good for us,” said Japan coach, John Kirwan.
“We’re playing teams above us in the rankings, physical matches and it’s really helped us. Last year we had two wins against Samoa and Tonga and our whole life revolved around PNC. We wanted to win it and we wanted to perform in it.
“This year I need to be a little careful just to keep my eye on the World Cup, so I need to take a few risks and play some people who need to play to see if they can take that step up.”
While Japan are expected to be at full strength, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have named all their overseas-based players in their squads, which signals an exciting 10 days for the Fijian fans, while match day two will also provide two World Cup dress rehearsals.
Fiji and Samoa are drawn in Pool D for the Rugby World Cup alongside Wales, South Africa and Namibia, while Tonga and Japan play in Pool A with hosts New Zealand, France and Canada.
Fiji and Tonga kick off RWC curtain raisers
This is the first of the three matches the two island teams play before the Rugby World Cup as they are also set to play build-up tests in August.
In the first match for the two teams at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Tonga will be looking for a repeat of the 2007 result when the Friendly Islanders beat the Flying Fijians 21-15 at the same venue.
The two nations also produced arguably the most exciting game of the competition to date last year in Samoa, when Fiji came back from 31-0 down to win 41-38.
In the history of the competition, Tonga leads their head-to-head with three wins to Fiji's two, but the talking point for Fiji rugby is the return of all time top point-scorer Nicky Little.
Little has not played any international rugby since breaking his leg in Fiji’s outstanding win against Wales at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but his steady game could still be key to Fijian success.
Domoni: "We must be better"
Backing up from a tough season abroad are the likes of Albert Vulivuli, Gabriel Lovobalavu and young Clermont full back Kini Murimuivalu, while coach Sam Domoni has made it clear he expects better from his side.
“Tonga will be physical and we cannot afford what we did last year. We have to be on our toes from the start,” said Domoni.
Like the Fijians, Tonga will also be out to win a first ever PNC title and their preparations began at the Churchill Cup in England earlier this month, where they lost in the Plate final to Italy A, 27-18.
The likes of brothers Kurt and Daniel Morath will be key to Tongan success, along with Alipate Fatafehi, Semisi Telefoni, Kisi Pulu, Viliami Ma’afu and Taufa’ao Filise.
Tonga mentor and former All Black Isitolo Maka says his side is at full strength and looking forward to the battle.
IRB Pacific Nations Cup winners
2009: Junior All Blacks
2008: New Zealand Maori
2007: Junior All Blacks
2006: Junior All Blacks