Pacific rivals gear up for latest battle
July 8, 2011
Seru Rabeni is set to return to Fiji's ranks for this weekend's clash with Samoa © Getty Images
The battle for 2011 IRB Pacific Nations Cup resumes this weekend with Fiji playing host to Samoa and Tonga tackling Japan at the National Stadium in Suva.
Fiji and Japan know victory is a must if they are to keep alive their hopes of a first-ever title after opening day defeats, not to mention the opportunity to get one over sides they will face at Rugby World Cup later this year. Tonga and Japan open proceedings in what will be a precursor to their World Cup encounter in Whangarei on September 21. Fiji then tackle their future pool rivals Samoa - a warm-up for their Auckland showdown on September 25.
Tonga opened their account with a 45-21 victory over Fiji last weekend but coach Isitola Maka is looking for further improvement. The former All Black believes it will be a tough task against Japan because most of his players will only be playing their second match together.
"Most of our players didn't go to the Churchill Cup and only played together for the first time last week," explained Maka, fresh from his side's first Pacific Nations Cup victory since 2008.
"All we want to do is improve from the last game and the belief is that we can improve further. We were last in the PNC last year but our goal is to win it this year and we need to take the Japan game very seriously."
Fly-half Kurt Morath, who was outstanding against Fiji, will again be the key for the Friendly Islanders, while the likes of half back Samisoni Fisilau, captain Samiu Vahafolau, back-row Sione Kalamafoni and Chiefs Super Rugby prop Alisona Taumalolo will provide the necessary support.
Japan coach John Kirwan is wary of what to expect from the hard hitting Islanders, but with the likes of injured James Arlidge returning he is looking at the positives. The only Asian team to have graced the Rugby World Cup stage, the Brave Blossoms are looking at countering Tonga with their own brand of rugby.
"All sides have been working hard," said Kirwan, whose side have beaten Tonga in the last four years of the Pacific Nations Cup. "Tonga will be physical and put pressure on us from the start, but we need to play our own style and play our game to counter that. We have a few players coming back from injuries and that should boost the side."
Fiji and Samoa both anticipate a typical island battle, especially after Samoa's 31-9 victory in 2010 saw them pip their rivals to the title. Samoa coach Titiamaea Tafua is adamant, though, that the match is nothing compared to what will happen when the sides meet again at Eden Park later in the year.
"Fiji is always a good side. We are prepared well for the match on Saturday and it will be a good game as always when Fiji and Samoa play," Tafua said. "This is a build-up and trials for the World Cup and while winning the PNC is not important at the moment, we would like to defend the title. We in the Pacific play the game with our heart and that is what will be on show this Saturday."
His counterpart Sam Domoni has called up veteran Seru Rabeni to his squad to replace outstanding midfield back Gabriel Lovobalavu, an inclusion which will certainly boost the Fijians. "We have a lot of work ons to do like other teams when they want to better their performance, and of course this is a do-or-die game for us," Domoni said. "So for us, we are taking it as a big challenge and it's a good one and it's also on our home turf and we ready to go."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales' lessons to learn in defeat by New Zealand are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards
Scrum Sevens takes a wander down memory lane and celebrates seven examples of Pacific Islands magic