Samoa look for winning return in PNC

(IRB.COM) Thursday 5 June 2014
 
 Samoa look for winning return in PNC
Samoa will put out a vastly different team v Tonga to the one beaten by Japan in the build up to the IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2014. Photo: JRFU 2014/RJP H.Nagaoka

The IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2014 gets underway on Saturday 7 June with Samoa and Canada playing host to Tonga and Japan respectively.

The IRB Pacific Nations Cup 2014 comprises six teams competing in two conferences across North America and the Pacific Islands. Fiji will take on Samoa (back this year after a sabbatical in 2013) and Tonga in the Islands within a Pacific Conference, while Canada, Japan and USA will play their North America Conference matches in British Columbia, Toronto and Sacramento.

The Pacific Nations Cup match schedule and greater opportunities within the June and November Test windows underscore the IRB’s commitment to providing greater levels of Test competition for Tier Two nations in order to boost the competitiveness of the Game globally.

Fixtures in PNC 2014 will be played on three match days: 7, 14 and 21 June – all within the IRB June Test window. 

With Rugby World Cup 2015 on the horizon all Test matches over the next 12 months will be crucial to the development of the respective teams and their IRB World Rankings.

Double focus for Fiji

Fiji will have one eye on their Test matches against Samoa and Tonga and the other on the final Oceania Rugby World Cup qualifier against Cook Islands on 28 June. Fiji has yet to qualify for RWC 2015 and has been in a state of flux off the field recently. Now back on track Fiji has just appointed a new coach in Australian John McKee who was the Union’s High Performance Manager.

McKee’s first job was to appoint his coaching staff, which now includes former Fijian Test players Moses Rauluni and Alifereti Mocelutu, and determine which overseas-based players would be available for selection. "June is a very important month for us and it’s important that we assemble the best team on and off the field to achieve RWC qualification,” McKee said recently.

Fiji have the advantage of playing their two conference matches at home but have a bye in the first round and will play against a touring Italy in Suva as preparation for the series. Akapusi Qera, the 30-year-old Toulouse flanker and Fiji captain jetted into Fiji this week and spoke positively about the tournament ahead. “The players are adapting well under McKee and I am honoured to lead the team again,” said Qera. “Our preparations have been good and we are waiting for all the players to get into camp."

Eagles ready for take off

USA, keen to improve on a disappointing 2013 campaign and the lowest ranked team at 18th in the world, play both their matches at home too. The Eagles like Fiji do not play in round one and will play a Test against Scotland on Saturday in Houston ahead of their first match against Japan. They also recently undertook a training camp in Denver, Colorado.

Coach Mike Tolkin has an increasing number of overseas-based players to call on, 13 of whom have already represented the Eagles. Forty players attended the camp and the squad will include the experienced England-based trio of back-five forward Samu Manoa (Northampton), and backs Chris Wyles (Saracens) and Blaine Scully (Leicester). 

Confident Canada

The quietly confident Canadians sit 15th in the IRB World Rankings and used a recent match between a British Columbia Invitational XV and a Canada Select XV as a trial for final selection ahead of its matches. Canada will also play Scotland on 14 June inbetween matches against Japan and USA.

Head coach Kieran Crowley believes his largely home-based squad is ready for the challenge. “I think there’s a lot of competition right now which creates some difficult decisions for the coaching staff,” said the Kiwi. “We’ll have a lot of work to do in the week before the Japan Test; it will be our first game together and they’ve had five recently and we always have difficult games against them. We’ve selected a group of guys that I know will give it their best shot and we will certainly look to put our best performance on the field.”

Canada is certainly looking to the future - highlighted by the appointment of 22-year-old captain Tyler Ardron, who plays professional rugby in Wales for the Ospreys. "I'm fortunate to have a core group of strong leaders and veterans on this roster such as Aaron Carpenter (Cornish Pirates), DTH van der Merwe (Glasgow Warriors) and Jamie Cudmore (Clermont Auvergne)," said Ardron.

Japan's magnificent seven

Having successfully retained their Asian 5 Nations crown with victories over Korea, Hong Kong, Philippines and Sri Lanka in April/May, Japan ramped up their preparations for PNC 2014 last weekend with a 33-14 win over an inexperienced Samoa side. It was the Brave Blossoms’ seventh win on the bounce, a national record, and the perfect way to help lock Hitoshi Ono celebrate becoming the most capped player in Japan Test match history.

“We broke the record for consecutive wins which is a fantastic effort by the team. But we made hard work of it out there and left a lot of points on the field. But overall I am happy,” reflected head coach Eddie Jones, who has strengthened his support staff with the arrival of former England skipper Steve Borthwick as forwards coach and Welshman Leigh Jones as defence coach.

While not quite on the same scale as the historic win over Wales in 2013, the victory over Samoa was still another important milestone in Japan’s evolution as a force to be reckoned with under Jones. The Brave Blossoms are now ranked 12th in the world and have designs on moving into the Top 10 before next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Samoa strengthened

Samoa coach Stephen Betham admitted his young domestic-based side had been thoroughly outplayed in Tokyo. "It was a big Test for us as we build for the World Cup," said Betham. "We learn from our mistakes and move on. Japan work well as a unit. They have made big strides in the last couple of years."

But Samoa will be strengthened by the availability of several senior overseas players for the matches against Fiji and Tonga, including giant props Census and James Johnston, Northampton scrum half Kahn Fotuali’i and lock Kane Thompson from the Chiefs. Therefore it will be a completely different Samoa team that takes on Tonga at home in Apia on 7 June to the one that lost in Toyko.

Samoa is the highest placed Pacific team in the IRB World Rankings at ninth despite the loss to Japan, with Fiji at 11th and Tonga 13th. Samoa missed PNC 2013 to compete in a quadrangular tournament with South Africa, Italy and Scotland.

Tonga seek boost

It will be a tough assignment for Tonga in Samoa and head coach Mana Otai admits his team is missing some of their bigger names because of injury and other commitments. However, the former Test forward says the unavailability of some of the top players gives the opportunity for others to press home their claims for ‘Ikale Tahi selection.

“Winning our Pacific matches would be a great boost for the national side, leading up to Rugby World Cup 2015,” stated Otai.

Tonga will travel to Samoa and Fiji with a squad of players based largely in England, France, Japan and New Zealand, including back rowers Steve Mafi (Leicester Tigers) and Viliami Ma'afu (Oyonnax), wing Fetu’u Vainikolo (Exeter Chiefs) and promising scrum half Sonatane Takuluva (Auckland Blues).

Matches from PNC 2014 are being streamed by the IRB via www.irb.com. 

IRB Pacific Nations 2014 Fixtures (all times are local)

Saturday, 7 June 
14:00 - Samoa v Tonga, Apia Park, Samoa 
18:00 - Canada v Japan, Swangard Stadium, Burnaby, British Columbia

Saturday, 14 June
15:00 - Fiji v Tonga, Churchill Park, Lautoka, Fiji
19:30 - USA v Japan, Stub Hub Center, Los Angeles, California

Saturday, 21 June 
15:00 - Fiji v Samoa, ANZ Stadium, Suva, Fiji 
15:00 - USA v Canada, Cal Expo Facility, Sacramento, California