JAPAN BOASTS, FIJI CONFIDENT, SAMOAN SETBACK
The 'brave blossoms' are boasting their stand in Asia despite the fact that there is little or no high level of competitive rugby in Asia. This after the side was once again unbeaten the in HSBC Asian Nations Cup. This season, Japan amassed 312 points in four matches, only giving up 11. A regional powerhouse, Japan has never lost a match in the history of the tournament in Asia. Under the guidance of 2003 World Cup Wallabies mentor Eddie Jones, the side is boasting off another fancy season in the Pacific Nations Cup (PNC). After the pulling out of New Zealand Maori and Australia A, Samoa and Japan have then won the PNC respectively. Japan's defence of the title begins on June 5 when they lock horns against Fiji in Nogoya.
|Team Japan after winning the Asian 5 Nations title this year. PHOTO: Getty Images|
Japan, set to host the 2019 World Cup, is ambitious and wants to become a major force in a sport dominated by countries such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France. Japan has started participating in the Pacific Nations Cup against Tonga, Fiji and Samoa to increase its exposure to tougher international competition. Coach Eddie Jones, who guided Australia to the 2003 World Cup final, plans to use his strongest team for the 2012 Pacific Nations Cup, something that Japan rarely has to do in Asia.
Fiji on the other hand, are still licking their wounds from last years loss to Japan and are hungry to get their hands on the PNC title. The side could not have asked for a better start into their campaign this season as they face the defending champs (Japan) in their first encounter next Tuesday. Scotland-based backrower Netani Talei will captain the side.
Talei plys his trade for Edinburgh, and will take over the captaincy from prop Deacon Manu who led Fiji to last year's Rugby World Cup. Manu recently signed a contract extension with his Welsh club, the Scarlets, and is not available for the Pacific tournament. Under the guidance of new coach Inoke Male, only seven overseas-based players feature in the 24 man squad for the match against Japan. The side is confident of a good outing this season.
|Netani Talei (centre) for his Edinburg club. PHOTO: Getty Images|
Fiji had a poor outing last year after suffering two losses at home in the hands of Tonga and Japan and then failing to live up to expectations in the Rugby World Cup. Coach Inoke Male has a chance to redeem the Flying Fijians image next Tuesday when Fiji takes on Japan in their first PNC match. Male said that he has confidence in his team especially the local players to deliver what is expected of them.
Pacific neighbours Samoa are having troubles of their own just before the kick off to the 2012 PNC. Newly appointed Coach Stephen Betham was forced to dump Chiefs hooker and world cup captain Mahonri Schwalger, alongside Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu after directives from the country’s Prime Minister and International Rugby Board respectively.
Fuimaono-Sapolu was omitted from Samoa’s 35-man training squad for the Pacific Nations Cup and a one–off Test against Scotland. Fuimaono-Sapolu received a suspended six month ban in October after an angry Twitter rant at the World Cup in New Zealand accusing Welsh referee Nigel Owens of racism after Samoa’s 13-5 loss to South Africa. He was in further trouble a month later over a Twitter outburst against Saracens’ Owen Farrell. Schwalger was dropped from the national side after writing a damning report criticising the team management's conduct at last year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, where an underperforming Samoa were eliminated in the pool phase.
Coach Stephen Betham told the Samoa Observer after the squad was named that Fuimaono-Sapolu was axed because of a directive from the IRB.. Samoa coach Stephen Betham said the 33-year-old captain missed out because of his age but Schwalger, has been in fine form with high-flying Super 15 outfit the Waikato Chiefs this season. Schwalger told the Waikato Times that although there had been some changes in teams management, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi's role as chairman was hampering wholesale reform.
Controversies seem to be long part of the Pacific Island nations before any major tourney, however, the islanders are gutsy enough to put behind their misunderstandings and pull off a surprising results. Samoa certainly has the ability to beat any team in the world after their famous and only victory over former world champs Australia last year. Fiji, I think get excited too quickly and their ‘late start’ in matches often proves costly. It will be interesting to see how they feature against reining champs Japan. The brave blossoms have been bubbling with confidence but only time will tell when the dust settles in Nagoya to see who comes out as the real best.
|Challenge... Samoa performs their war dance at the PNC last year. PHOTO: Getty Images.|