Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Preview: Pacific Nations Cup 2015

As the 10th edition of the Pacific Nations Cup kicks off this weekend, here is a summary on how each of the six nations involved are approaching this tournament that will serve as preparation for the upcoming World Cup.

After the huge occasion they staged hosting the All Blacks for the first time, where they made things tough on the pitch for the world's number one side, this tournament will be a a bit of a come down for Samoa.

They have opted to rest a number of key players. Among them include influential openside flanker Jack Lam, scrum half Kahn Fotuali'i, try scorer against the All Blacks Alafoti Fa'osiliva, plus other starters from their last match in Tusi Pisi, Ole Avei, Kane Thompson, Tim Nanai-Williams and Census Johnston (who it is unclear as to whether he's now resumed his international retirement). Captain Ofisa Treviranus meanwhile is also out after suffering an injury during that match.

In all that means 9 of the starting XV that faced the All Blacks are not scheduled to play in this tournament at all. In addition to that Samoa have not had great luck on the injuries front with George Pisi, Logovi'i Mulipola and Paul Williams all out. Maurie Fa'asavalu is another rested, and Rey Lee-Lo not yet joined up from the Super Rugby final (although curiously his teammate Motu Matu'u has).
Samoa endured a long difficult
journey to the USA, where they
will field an experimental team.

So they are a depleted squad, around only five or six of the squad are probable first choice starters and regulars in the XV, with some of the squad inexperienced at high level or some way off the standard of the first choice options, particularly at 9 and 10.

The Samoan coaching staff say they want to look at fringe players, but some such as 31 year once capped tighthead Jake Grey, young uncapped back rower Francis Ieremia, or 26 year old 7s player Faleniu Iosi have got to be considered real long shots to make the World Cup 31.

Samoa are not alone in rotating or resting players, but the degree of which they are experimenting with their squad is larger than the other teams in tournament.

Whilst it makes sense to rest a player like Ole Avei who played 26 times for Bordeaux last season. Others like Fa'osiliva or Nanai-Williams who didn't feature so much last season, or Tusi Pisi who played in the softer Japanese league, surely could have been retained in the squad to keep a bit more continuity but coach Stephen Betham has decided otherwise.

Ultimately though, this doesn't seem a Samoan side that is prepared to perform at anywhere near their optimum level. Not only are they weakened. But they also had travel complications, and faced a draining 48 hour journey to the USA, that included numerous delays, and their team will have just 4 days to fight off the jetlag before facing the Eagles. Despite being the highest ranked team in the tournament, finishing in the top half would be an achievement.

The Cherry Blossoms won the last edition of the Pacific Nations Cup that was held in a World Cup year, beating Fiji away from home, only to fail to win a game in New Zealand.

That fact seems to have had an impact on coach Eddie Jones, who has constantly played down the importance of results in this tournament, citing Japan beating Tonga four times in a row only to beaten comfortably by the Ikale Tahi at the World Cup in 2011.
Eddie Jones has made clear he won't
be 'showing his hand' before the
RWC to rival teams in his pool.

Jones has made clear how he is approaching the tournament and labelled it a 'training session'. And although he said his side will still go out to win every match, he also talked of 'not showing his hand' especially for the match against World Cup opponents the USA in the second week in California, or a potential match with Samoa. So winning isn't necessarily the priority here.

Japan are resting all their six Super Rugby players who will stay behind catching up on fitness work, although they may return for the latter couple matches in the tournament. Whilst the important duo of Amanaki Lelei Mafi and Male Sa'u are still injured battling to make it back in time for the World Cup.

From the way Jones has talked about tournament, it seems very likely he will use it as a chance to fill up the last 10 or spots in his squad he says are still are up for grabs and test some of his fringe players like Ryohei Yamanaka or Tsuyoshi Murata against stronger opponents than is possible in Asian rugby.

The Tongans have approached this tournament with a squad seemingly nearer full strength than either Samoa or Japan, and not far off what will be their World Cup side. Although they do have players missing, but as usual, there is very little information coming out of Tonga as to the reasons why.
Nili Latu has started every game for
Tonga since November 2012 and will
draw ever closer to the Tongan caps
record during this tournament.

Coach Mana Otai referenced there were players he's been unable to select due to club commitments, whilst also saying his PNC squad is not his final RWC squad and different players can come into the reckoning. But he didn't name who on either count.

Leaving it just as a guess as to whether for example Sione Kalamafoni, who's the most notable player not in the squad, is not there because of his club or whether he's just being rested for th e World Cup after playing a lot of games for Gloucester last season. The other player who was first choice last November missing is tighthead Paea Fa'anunu, again though no word on the reason why as to whether he's withdrawn himself, injured or even dropped. 

Despite those two missing though, Tonga still have a decent squad out. They don't have an easy schedule with an away match to Fiji, followed by a trek to play the rest of the matches in Canada, but will be disappointed if they don't finish in the top half.

Pool 2:
Fiji are taking the opposite approach to this tournament than Samoa and are fielding their strongest team available, and as a result are probably favourites to retain the trophy they lifted in 2013.
Fiji have named a full squad for this
tournament, and on paper the
strongest team, but significant travel
demands may hinder them.

They did suffer a blow in their disappointing defeat to the Maori All Blacks, where they blew a 26-10 half time lead as their lineout went completely haywire in the second half, as they lost their gargantuan finisher Nemani Nadolo to injury (although he should be back in time for the World Cup).

But Fiji has unbelievable depth of talent on the wing as everybody knows, so despite losing Nadolo, they still have the likes of Waisea Nayacalevu, Niki Goneva and Metuisela Talebula all with a wealth of tries between them in European club rugby and they will field quality wingers whoever they pick.

Coach John McKee may opt to rotate his team, particularly the players who've had long European seasons, so although their squad is full strength, they won't likely be playing the full team throughout the whole tournament. 

The biggest obstacle to the Fijians winning though is the tough travel schedule they have. After playing Tonga in Suva on a Saturday, they'll have to trek all the way to California to play a match on a Friday, followed by a trek to Toronto for a game on a Wednesday.

That's a lot of time zones crossed there, not easy for the players, and as a result training may be limited through jetlag and hours on a plane. So despite fielding a strong team, as is a theme with this PNC, don't expect Fiji to play at their absolute best under the circumstances they're playing in.

USA may be one of the worst teams in the tournaments rankings wise, but they are at full strength, with the exception of star player Samu Manoa who is in Toulon to settle in with his family (he will be back for the World Cup), and have a somewhat gentler travel schedule with two matches at home in California before travelling to Canada.
Despite missing star player Samu
Manoa, Mike Tolkin's side has a
great opportunity with two home
games against experimental Samoan
and Japan sides to take their scalp.

Despite Manoa's absence, if what is a near full strength Eagles can't beat an tired, jetlagged, understrength Samoa playing in front of their home crowd, then they can just forget about winning at the World Cup right there. There is so much in their favour for that game they must surely back themselves to pick up a win over the Samoans for the first time.

Again with the next game again at home against Japan, who've said they are treating it as a training session and holding back for the World Cup match, the USA could also have a much better chance of beating the Cherry Blossoms than they would usually.

So despite the Eagles poor record so far in the PNC having only won one game out of 7, circumstances are somewhat in their favour to do a bit better this time around. Although one thing that's the same as those disappointing previous PNC results, they still have a coach who's looked out of his depth at this level.

The Canadians will play three of their four matches at home, which should put them as favourites to challenge and at least finish top half. However they're also coming off an utterly miserable November string of games which culminated with a dour loss to Romania.

Jamie Cudmore is sitting the PNC
out with concussion trouble.
Although for Canada can at least hold some hope in that they have generally done much better at home in summer conditions in recent times compared to away in November nights in Eastern Europe. Although it remains to be seem whether they can recover some form given just how much they struggled last November.

Virtually every side in the PNC this year is without a marquee name, and Canada are no different with veteran lock Jamie Cudmore out with concussion trouble.

Other probable first choice starters either rested or injured include back rower Jebb Sinclair, tighthead Jason Marshall, and wing Taylor Paris.

This tournament may be a little more important for Canada than some others involved, as they are playing in front of a home crowd for the bulk of it, and really need to gather some momentum after such a bad November.

Round 1 (Saturday 18 July)
Fiji vs Tonga
Canada vs Japan
USA vs Samoa

Round 2 (Friday 24 July)
 Fiji vs Samoa 
 Canada vs Tonga 
 USA vs Japan 

Round 3 (Wednesday 29 July)
 USA vs Tonga 
 Fiji vs Japan 
 Canada vs Samoa 

Playoff Round (Monday 3 August)
5th place playoff
3rd place playoff

Format: There are two pools of three. Pool 1 is Samoa, Japan and Tonga. Pool 2 is Fiji, USA and Canada. Each team will play the teams in the opposite pool once. Rankings for the final playoff round will be determined from the placing in each pool.

R1: Chris Pollock (Fiji vs Tonga), Luke Pearce (Canada vs Japan), JP Doyle (USA vs Samoa)
R2: JP Doyle (Fiji vs Samoa) Federico Anselmi (Canada vs Tonga), Luke Pearce (USA vs Japan)
R3: Alexandre Ruiz (USA vs Tonga), Pascal Gauzere (Fiji vs Japan), Angus Gardner (Canada vs Samoa)
Playoffs: Alexandre Ruiz (5 vs 6), Angus Gardner (3 vs 4), Pascal Gauzere (Final)

R1: ANZ Stadium, Suva (Fiji vs Tonga), Avaya Stadium, San Jose (Canada vs Japan, USA vs Samoa)
R2: Bonney Field, Sacramento (Fiji vs Samoa, USA vs Japan), Swangard Stadium, Burnaby (Canada vs Tonga)
R3: BMO Field, Toronto (All 3 games)
Playoffs: Swangard Stadium, Burnaby (All 3 games)


  1. Kyle Phillips17/7/15 4:30 pm

    Great preview. Sure would be nice to see the PNC stay in the same form for a number of years to gain a little presitge and have teams put more stock into winning it.

    Having said that, in a World Cup year even the Rugby Championship is seen as primarily a stepping stone. So it's understandable that we Tier 2 fans need to keep the overall expectation low for the status of the PNC.

    Still looking forward to a good tournament.

  2. Talk about a horrible timing for a tournament.