Friday sees the start of the World Rugby Pacific Challenge 2019 with the best up-and-coming talent from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan showcasing their skills over the course of the next eight days (8-16 March) in the Fijian capital of Suva.
Organised as a round-robin event with all three rounds played at the ANZ Stadium, the line-up for this year’s Pacific Challenge is consistent with that of the previous three years with defending champions Fiji Warriors competing against Junior Japan, Tonga A and Samoa A.
The World Rugby-funded tournament is a proven player development platform in the Pacific Islands and Asia, delivering a high-performance pathway for a core group of under-23 players from domestic to international rugby.
Second-row Albert Tuisue is one example of the many players who have used the Pacific Challenge as a platform to go on and achieve higher honours, the 25-year-old following in the footsteps of the likes of countrymen Akapusi Qera, Peni Ravi and Manasa Saulo when he was capped four times by the Flying Fijians in June and November.
Fiji Warriors have won the last three tournaments and eight in total since the competition’s inception in 2006 and are much-fancied to maintain their grip on the trophy. They will be captained on this occasion by scrum-half Frank Lomani, in what will be his third tournament at just 22 years of age.
Lomani succeeds long-time captain Mosese Voka, who remains in the squad and will no doubt provide invaluable support as part of the wider leadership group. Voka, 33, a five-times capped Flying Fijian, is one of the five senior players that each of the squads are allowed.
The Pacific Challenge will also give a number of the players set to represent Fiji at the World Rugby U20 Championship in Argentina this June further exposure to international competition. No less than 11 of the squad for the Pacific Challenge helped Fiji win the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Romania last year.
While the captain’s armband has changed hands, Lomani insists the Fijian approach will still be the same when they begin their title defence with a match against last year’s bottom-ranked side, Tonga A.
“We came in as strangers, some from the under-20s, some from the under-18s and, for us, from the Fiji Drua. I think we have gelled well over the last two weeks and we’ve been enjoying playing together. Although we only had two weeks of preparation, I think the boys are doing well,” he said.
“Tomorrow (Friday) we’re just going to take it slow and work our weapons outside and we’re going to play the way we play, which is the Fijian way.”
As for Tonga A, captain Liueli Simote is anticipating a tough defensive shift. “I feel that tomorrow’s game will be a good game, and one we need to win. For us, defence will be important as Fiji will be coming out strong with their quick plays.”
Having won the World Rugby Americas Pacific Challenge in October, Samoa A will be looking to land the double and claim their first title in this competition under the current format. Alongside last year’s runners-up Junior Japan, they have the honour of kicking off the 2019 tournament.
“We are expecting a tough match against Japan. They beat us last year at this same tournament, so we came prepared knowing that they are a very good team and a tough team,” said captain Afa Aiono. “The boys are doing well and know that it will be a fast match.
“There are Samoan fans here, especially the students from the University of the South Pacific, so hopefully we will have a good game tomorrow.”
Winning some silverware at this level would be another significant step forward for Japanese rugby in the same year they host the Rugby World Cup. However, captain and winger Shota Fukui, a member of the Japan U20 side for the past two seasons, is not looking beyond Friday’s opening fixture.
“We know that Samoa are a very strong, energetic and physical team. It is important for us to also enjoy the one-on-one match-ups.
“We have been busy with preparations for a week, adjusting to this climate as it’s been winter in Japan and also to the facility and environment as it’s quite different from Japan.”
Following Friday’s action, the Pacific Challenge will continue on Tuesday 12 March with the final round taking place four days later. The team with the most competition points will be declared the champion.