Japan out to spring Fiji suprise
June 11, 2010
Can Japan keep alive their momentum from the Asian Five Nations? © Getty Images
The 2010 Pacific Nations Cup kicks off in Samoa on Saturday, with the hosts, Fiji, Tonga and Japan scrapping to succeed the Junior All Blacks as champions.
With the New Zealand Maori engaging in a commemorative season of tour matches there will be no Kiwi influence on the tournament this year, meaning that there will be first-time winners after the Maori and Junior All Blacks shared the preceding four tournaments.
The opening games throws Japan, fresh from booking their place at the Rugby World Cup with a riotous surge to the Asian Five Nations title, together with Fiji. The Fijians were well beaten by Australia last weekend but are protecting a proud 16-year unbeaten record against Japan.
The sides have played out some classic encounters in recent seasons, including a 40-39 thriller last year. Japan coach John Kirwan, who was critical of his side despite the massive scores wrapped up in their recent games, is not arriving to make up the numbers.
"We are confident," he told AFP. "We lost to Fiji by only one point last year and also lost two years ago. We beat Tonga in the past two years. This year I really want to win the Pacific Nations Cup.
"What we need to learn now is how to win close games. That's the goal for this year. Last year, we should have beaten Fiji, we lost four minutes into injury time. We will go to win the games against Fiji, Tonga and Samoa."
Japan lost out to New Zealand domestic side North Harbour in their last outing however, and will want a big performance from returning skipper Takashi Kikutani. His opposite will be Dominiko Waqaniburotu, a surprise call to lead the Fijians after making his Test bow against the Wallabies.
Hosts Samoa will face Tonga in Apia in the round's other match. Tonga are yet to taste a tournament victory over their rivals while Samoan rugby is on a high after their Sevens side sealed their first IRB Sevens World Series title in Edinburgh.
Five members of that squad, including Player of the Year Mikaele Pesamino, will be involved on Saturday as coach Fuimaono Tafua uses his full resources. London Irish flanker George Stowers and Wasps wing David Lemi both start, while Chiefs halfback Junior Poluleuligaga starts alongside Lolo Lui. Tonga coach Isitolo Maka has named brothers Daniel and Kurt Morath at halfback for the game.
"There were a number of players unavailable for selection due to injuries and contractual obligations otherwise we casted our net globally," Tafua said.
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