Friday sees the start of the World Rugby Pacific Challenge 2018 with the best young talent from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan going head-to-head over the course of the next eight days 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 two years with defending champions Fiji Warriors competing against Junior Japan, Tonga A and Samoa A.
The World Rugby-funded tournament continues to be 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.
Fiji national team captain Akapusi Qera, fellow Fijians Peni Ravi and Manasa Saulo, Tongans Tevita Halafonua and Sione Kalamafoni, Samoans Logovi’i Mulipola, Ofisa Treviranus and Alafoti Faosiliva and Japan’s Kenki Fukuoka are among the stars to have graduated from the competition to play test rugby.
Fiji Warriors have won the last two tournaments and seven in total since the competition’s inception in 2006 and are much-fancied to claim a hat-trick of titles, especially with influential back-rower Mosese Voka returning as captain.
Voka won the last of his five Fiji caps against Italy in November last year and, at 32 years of age, is one of the five senior players allowed in each of the squads.
Two other members of last year’s title-winning squad make it into the starting line-up for the Warriors’ opening fixture against Samoa A, namely uncapped prop Eroni Mawi and scrum-half Frank Lomani, who appeared in Fiji’s last test, against Canada in Narbonne last November.
Fiji Warriors clinched the 2017 title when they beat Samoa A 48-25 in the final round, but the encounter was much closer than the scoreline suggests and another keenly contested match is expected between these passionate rivals.
For the first time in four years, Patrick Faapale will not be present to guide Samoa A around the park. Instead, the fly-half responsibilities fall to D’Angelo Leuila. Centre Jay Malielegaoi and wing Jonny Vaili are back for another year though, as is flanker Mikaele Tapili.
The opening match of the tournament involves 2017 runners-up Junior Japan and Tonga A. In last year’s corresponding fixture, Junior Japan came out on top 42-33 in an 11-try extravaganza of attacking rugby to clinch their highest-ever finish.
Fly-half Taichi Mano is the only player to survive from that win in the starting line-up for Friday’s curtain-raiser, although number eight Tevita Tatafu, capped three times by the Brave Blossoms, was another member of the 2017 squad that performed so well.
A handful of Tonga A players will be familiar to the Japanese, notably hooker and captain Sione Lolohea, while goal-kicking James Faiva, deployed at centre for this game instead of at full-back, is another player to experience the Pacific Challenge for a second consecutive year.
Following Friday’s action, the Pacific Challenge will resume on 13 March with the final round taking place four days later. The team with the most match points will be declared the champion.
The Pacific Challenge will be streamed live on the World Rugby Facebook page, although some geo-blocking may apply.