By Indra Singh
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup reaches its climax in the Fijian city of Lautoka on Wednesday with all four teams, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and Japan, in contention to win the title.
Tonga will open proceedings at Churchill Park against Pacific neighbours Samoa at 12:40 local time before hosts Fiji take on Asian champions Japan at 15:10.
All four teams have won once over the first two match days but Tonga lead with six points meaning that a bonus point win over Samoa would give Isitolo Maka’s side a first ever PNC title.
If the first two rounds of exciting rugby and unpredictable results are anything to go by, fans are in for a treat in the final round as the players and coaches enter the final stretch in the build-up to the Rugby World Cup.
Tonga v Samoa
Tonga went down 28-27 to Japan last weekend but under new coach Isitolo Maka and his assistant, former Wallaby legend Toutai Kefu, the Friendly Islanders are eying their first ever PNC title with intent.
Under the new management team the Tongans have been working hard to devise a game plan to counter the Samoans.
“It will be hard and it is always hard to play Samoa,” said Tonga skipper Samiu Vahafolau. “They have tough forwards and fast backs. That is why we have to play to win the game.”
Vahafolau is aware of Tonga’s position on the points table and what is required to win the PNC, but insists that their first goal is to win the match.
“We are first looking at winning the game and if the bonus point comes, we will be happy with that. However, we need to improve a lot from the Japan game as we were too slow to react and that gave Japan a chance to outplay us,” he added.
The match between the two heavyweights is likely to be tight and, after their second round reverse at the hands of Fiji, Samoa and coach Titimaea Tafua are gunning to put things right in defence of the trophy they won this time last year.
“Playing Tonga is always hard and we expecting nothing less than a physical battle,” Tafua said.
“It is nothing new and we are used to it and we expect them to come out and play a very physical game and we will be ready for it.”
Fiji v Japan
Any pressure on home coach Sam Domoni seems to have lifted as a result of their convincing win against Samoa.
For their final clash against Asian champions Japan, Domoni has made 14 changes with one positional switch. Ravai Fatiaki is the only survivor from the Samoa game but some notable recalls underline the strength in depth at his disposal.
Rugby World Cup 2007 stars Akapusi Qera, Sisa Koyamaibole, Ifereimi Rawaqa, Seremaia Bai and Seru Rabeni all return to the side to lift spirits both in and out of the camp.
“I don’t see any pressure in it. I mean it’s a very important game for all teams that are here,” Domoni said.
“It’s the application of the knowledge we have encountered through camping together and training together. That’s the main thing that will matter and will be the difference on Wednesday after the game. So there is no pressure at all, we are just looking at it and how to handle the adversity.”
Japan mentor John Kirwan has also made sweeping changes after his side’s victory against Tonga, with eight replacements and a positional switch.
Fiji’s nemesis of the past James Arlidge is amongst the players not playing but for Kirwan this is a Rugby World Cup build-up and winning the PNC is secondary.
“We are thinking about the World Cup and what players we will take and who can adapt and what their fitness levels are,” Kirwan said.
“We are happy with the win against Tonga last weekend and look forward to meeting Fiji and finishing off with a fine performance. Fiji as usual will be tough and history is not on our side.”