By Rich Freeman
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2012 gets underway on Tuesday, June 5 at Nagoya’s Mizuho Park Rugby Ground, one of three venues for this year’s tournament.
Samoa play Tonga in the opening game of the double-header match day, followed by hosts Japan who start their title defence against Fiji.
All four sides show huge changes from the teams that played in last year’s tournament in Fiji.
“You mean apart from the fact that the team is 90 per cent different from last year,” joked Japan centre Ryan Nicholas, when asked how things differed in the Brave Blossoms’ camp from a year ago.
New players and four new coaches means the formbook from previous tournaments counts for nothing as the teams start the long road towards Rugby World Cup 2015.
“The boys have talked it over during our training, to forget last year’s performances and to start a new journey starting with this PNC campaign and to be on the right track for the next World Cup,” Fiji coach Inoke Male told reporters before leaving for Japan.
Samoa coach Stephen Betham has omitted a number of veteran players from his squad, as he looks to improve on last year’s performance when the Samoans won just one game.
Glasgow wing David Lemi leads a side that includes eight new caps and has an England-feel to the front row with London Wasps’ Sakaria Taulafo packing down at loosehead prop and Leicester Tigers’ Logovii Mulipola at tighthead.
Tonga finished runners-up last year, and Toutai Kefu - coaching the team on an interim basis - will be looking for his foreign-based stars to gel quickly as they join the locally-basd players from domestic leagues in Japan, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
Fly-half Kurt Morath, who joined Kefu at Kubota Spears in the off-season needs just nine point to pass Fiji’s Taniela Rawaqa as the highest points scorer in the history of the tournament. Rawaqa has 103, Japan’s James Arlidge 96 and Morath is currently on 95.
Japan coach, Eddie Jones, meanwhile, has made three changes to the 22-man squad that clinched their fifth straight HSBC Asian Five Nations trophy two weeks ago.
“I was very pleased with the performance against Hong Kong so we have made just one change to the starting XV with Harumichi Tatekawa coming in for Yu Tamura,” Jones said.
Two veterans of the Rugby World Cup 2011 campaign were also included, having missed the A5N.
“We have also made two changes on the bench. Takashi Kikutani has been very impressive in the short time he has been [back] with the squad and adds flexibility as he can cover any of the back five in the pack, while Ryan Nicholas can similarly cover 12 and 13.”
Toshiaki Hirose skippers a Japan side that also includes Hirotoki Onozawa, who now stands fourth on the list of all-time test try scorers with 51 from 71 games.
Netani Talei leads a Fiji team that includes seven new caps in the starting XV, and which contains a number of Sevens specialists and local-based players.
Talei will however, have a few experienced hands alongside him in the likes of Graham Dewes and Viliame Veikoso in the front row.
Despite the large number of inexperienced players, Male said his team are well-placed to do well.
“We have prepared well and the team bonding is strong, we just need to rectify some minor mistakes we committed during training and hope for the best in Japan,” he said.
England’s Wayne Barnes will take charge of the first game, which kicks off at 17.10 local time (21.10 in Samoa and Tonga, 09.10 GMT), with Ireland’s John Lacey blowing the whistle in the second game which gets underway at 19.10 in Nagoya (23.10 in Fiji, 11.10 GMT).