By Rich Freeman in Nagoya
The IRB Pacific Nations Cup reaches its conclusion in Japan this week with four games set to be played in a nation currently on a rugby high.
While hosts Japan have no chance of claiming the title they won two years ago, they will be looking to build on last weekend's historic win over Wales and end the tournament in style.
Canada cross the Pacific in pole position – having won their opening three matches – but a slip up against the hosts in Nagoya could see Fiji or Tonga slip past them to claim the silverware.
The Canadians' final match is against Japan in the second game of Wednesday night's double header at the Mizuho Rugby Ground.
The draw card
The last time the sides met was in Rugby World Cup 2011 when they finished all square at 23-23. That came almost four years to the day after the sides drew 12-12 in France, with Japan winning the two games in between. And the old rivals (they played their first Test against each other in 1932) could meet again in two years’ time as the Asia 1 qualifier is paired in the same pool as Americas 2 at RWC 2015.
Despite the title being on the line, Canada coach Kieran Crowley has stuck with his rotation policy, while a number of Sevens specialists were also not considered as they prepare for the Rugby Sevens World Cup at the end of the month.
“We've also got quite a few injuries,” said Crowley, whose side has not beaten Japan since May 29, 2005.
Canada captain Aaron Carpenter admitted it would be a huge thrill if they were able to come away with the silverware.
“We haven't won anything for a while, so I would love to bring it back to Canada. It would be something to be proud of and would show the Canadian public that we can win trophies,” the Cornish Pirates player said.
Japan coach Eddie Jones, meanwhile, retains the same 23 that took part in Saturday's win over Wales, though he has made four changes to the starting XV.
Yusuke Nagae and Kensuke Hatakeyama start at prop, while locks Justin Ives and Shinya Makabe are also promoted from the bench.
Skill and speed versus strength
“The first 20 minutes will be very physical,” said Jones. “The Canadians are playing their last game so they will put everything into it. If we can cope (with that physicality) I believe we will have too much skill and speed for them later in the game.”
Fiji arrive in Japan in third place, behind Tonga, who they play on Sunday in Tokyo.
The Flying Fijians opened with a 22-8 win over the Brave Blossoms in torrential rain before a whistle-stop trip to Canada ended in 20-18 loss.
Coach Inoke Male is confident his players are in good shape for the matches ahead, starting with the United States on Wednesday night.
“We played the Classic All Blacks last week and that was really good preparation,” he said. “We've got most of our players back from overseas and we are hoping Japan can beat Canada. We need to get maximum points from our two games. We want to win the PNC, that's our goal.”
Fiji scored three second-half tries to beat the Classic All Blacks 33-14 in a match marking the centenary of the Fiji Rugby Union and the opening of a new national stadium in Suva.
Seremaia Bai, who wears the number 12 jersey against the USA, kicked three conversions and four penalties for 18 points. His midfield partner Nemani Nadolo scored one of the tries with prop Setefano Somoca and loose forward Malakai Ravulo also dotting down.
Eagles rotate squad
The Eagles start the final two rounds of matches a point ahead of Japan in fourth place following losses to Canada – who they face again on August 17 and 24 in a two-legged qualifier for an automatic spot at RWC 2015 – and Tonga.
Eagles coach Mike Tolkin has opted not to start some of his big name players with Todd Clever (who is set to win his 50th cap if he comes off the bench), Chris Wyles and Mike Petri all among the replacements.
“Some of the guys have played three straight matches and with Japan on Sunday it's just a rotation thing,” said Tolkin, who left the States with his team on Saturday morning following Friday's night defeat to Tonga and arrived in Nagoya the next day.
When asked how he would approach playing two very different sides with a short turnaround, Tolkin said: “You just have to work on your defensive and attacking principles, stick to them and make some minor adjustments.”
Lock Louis Stanfill captains the side in the absence of Clever, in an Eagles side showing nine changes to the one that lost 18-9 at home to Tonga in the last round of PNC action.