Pacific Nations seek a strong finish on Road to Japan
By Nayte Matai’a
The Pasifika Challenge II – Road to Japan, presented key game plan issues for Pacific teams ahead of the Rugby World Cup, and offers plenty of intrigue as Manu Samoa and Ikale Tahi play the Wallabies and All Blacks respectively in their final matches of their pre-cup campaign.
The Manu came out firing in their Pasifika challenge outing against the New Zealand Heartland XV, as they look to build momentum on their road to Japan this spring. With their last pre-Cup clash against the Wallabies fast approaching this Saturday, Vaeluagaomatagi Steve Jackson is nearing the end of a methodical coaching plan in the build up to their World Cup campaign.
“It’s pretty exciting for us, trying to get the team together, we’ve given some players some opportunities” says Vaeluagaomatagi, who views the Wallabies game as an opportunity to see where his squad measures up in the current International landscape. “It’s not the time for rotation, that was what the Pacific Nations Cup was about, this is more about getting combinations together” making it clear that the 23 players taking the field at Bankwest Stadium, Sydney this Saturday will be the best XV the Manu can muster. The ability to out-muscle the Heartland XV also offered fans a glimpse at a new style of play for the Samoans, “We came away from the PNC(Pacific Nations Cup) looking a bit predictable with the mid-field crash, but we’ve been asking the players to express themselves, that if they see a space to actually chance their arm,” said Jackson. “That’s how we want to play the game, we want to be able to play the game fast, and our conditioning’s there for us to be able to do that”. Stand out performances from the centre-winger combination of Alapati Leiua and AhSee Tuala along with a strong forward pack outing led by Crusader Michael Alaalatoa saw the Manu put away a fired up and more than capable NZ Heartland XV, 36-19.
In the second match of the evening, the Ikale Tahi took on the Flying Fijians in what was an electric display of speed and strength as the Fijians closed their pre-cup campaign with a 29-19 victory. The Pacific brand of Rugby was on show as both teams arm-wrestled in what was essentially, a game of two halves. Tonga controlled much of the first half with an early try to Siale Piutau, and managing at least 80% of possession whilst the Flying Fijians capitalized on a high error count from the Tongans, with tries against the grain of play to take the lead into half time, 17-12.
Ikale Tahi coach Toutai Kefu admitting that the match left him with mixed feelings. “Turnovers killed us today”, but that “there was enough good there to keep pressing on, and to keep the group positive”. Ikale Tahi captain Siale Piutau acknowledged his team had plenty to work on, “it was frustrating with our turnovers, Fiji capitalized on a majority of our turnovers to score tries from them”, “in terms of the All Blacks, they’ll be no different so we have to look after that pill out there”. Toutai is faced with a difficult decision of whittling his squad of 33 down to fit the 31 slots that the IRB allows to compete at the World Cup, “we’ve got nine front rowers so we’ll discuss whether we take one less and gamble on the props to allow another back to come in”. It was a different story for the Fijian camp who were content with their final performance before the World Cup,with Fijian coach John McKee praising Fiji’s defensive effort. “We worked very hard in our phase defense and goal line defense, so that aspect of our game was very positive”, “some good individual tackling as well”. McKee is confident in his teams conditioning heading into the Cup despite Fiji being the only team of the Pacific trio to not have a final outing against a tier one nation this week, “our physical fitness and ability to play at that intensity is pretty close to where we need to be”, “I’m happy with where we are at the moment but know we still have got a bit of work ahead of us “. The Flying Fijians utilized a more aggressive brand of football in the second half to counter a rugged Tongan pack, with heavy contact in close-quarters allowing them to build pressure and extend their lead. Growing on-field tension left both teams without their No.8’s after a dust-up between Fiji’s Peceli Yato & Tonga’s Maama Vaipulu. The Flying Fijians closing out their final match with a victory over a spirited Ikale Tahi, 29-19.
- The Flying Fijians open their World Cup campaign against the Wallabies on the 21st September in Pool D. Pool D includes Wales, Georgia, and Uruguay, and 2-time World Cup winners Australia.
- Ikale Tahi play the All Blacks in Hamilton at Waikato Stadium before they begin their World Cup campaign against England in Pool C on the 22nd September. Pool C has been labelled as the Pool of death for this tournament, and houses England, Argentine, France and the USA.
- The Manu Samoa find themselves in Pool A alongside Ireland, Scotland, Russia and tournament hosts Japan, and will play the Australian Wallabies on the 7th of September at Bankwest Stadium, in their last match on the road to Japan.