'It's going a doozy': Picking a favourite for the star-studded Pacific Nations Cup
For the first time since 2019, the Pacific Nations Cup will return to action when the 2022 edition of the competition kicks-off in Fiji next week.
With it comes an all-star cast of players who bring with them a level quality and talent not seen in the Pacific Nations Cup since its first iteration in 2006.
That’s because of World Rugby’s new eligibility laws, which have enabled test-capped players who haven’t played international rugby for at least three years to represent a second nation that they are qualified for via birthright.
Those rules came into effect on January 1, meaning the upcoming July international window will be the first time most former test players will have the chance to utilise those laws to represent another country.
Many of those dual-qualified players will feature at the Pacific Nations Cup, with Tonga taking significant advantage of the new rulings when naming their squad for the tournament.
They join former All Blacks midfielder Malakai Fekitoa and ex-Wallabies utility forward Lopeti Timani in Toutai Kefu’s side after they qualified for Tonga by playing for the country’s sevens team at an Olympic qualifying tournament last year.
Elsewhere, ex-All Blacks midfielder Seta Tamanivalu is one of ten new caps in the Fiji squad, while Samoa have picked Clermont loose forward Fritz Lee, who was previously deemed ineligible after having played for the All Blacks Sevens.
Lee is accompanied by former All Blacks squad member Jordan Taufua in being picked by Manu Samoa for the first time.
The selection of those players has substantially boosted the quality of the Pacific Nations Cup, and that has only been further enhanced by the return of Australia A, a second-tier national side that last featured in the tournament in 2008.
Eight Wallabies have been included in the Australia A side to compete in Fiji, giving the Pacific Nations Cup a sense of intrigue, excitement and competitiveness that has rarely been seen in previous editions of the competition.
That much was reflected by former All Blacks hooker James Parsons and ex-Maori All Blacks lock Joe Wheeler, neither of whom were able to pick an outright Pacific Nations Cup title favourite in the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
Parsons suggested Fiji and Australia A might have a slight upper hand due to the cohesion within their respective squads, but the former two-test international refused to rule Samoa and Tonga out of title contention.
“It is going to be a doozy of a competition,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“You look at Seta Tamanivalu coming back for Fiji, and they’ve got such a strong, passionate brand of footy that they really love representing that we’ve sort of seen flow through to the Drua.
“We’ve seen the additions of the Samoan squad and the Tongan squad as well. It’s definitely not a deadest ride. I was actually trying to think who the favourite is. I was struggling to pick one.
“If anything, the one thing the Aussies will have, and the Fijians, is they’ve got a little bit more knowledge of each other. They’ve played together a little bit longer, so that may work in their favour.
“But, man, you look at the lineups of Samoa, and especially Tonga, if that forward pack can provide that front-foot ball for some of those livewires out wide for Tonga, they’ll be a real threat as well.”
Wheeler, meanwhile, made particular note of the potential midfield combinations that Tonga will be able to field.
The five-time Maori All Blacks representative identified Fekitoa, Fetuli Paea – both of whom are former teammates of Wheeler’s at the Highlanders and Tasman, respectively – and Solomone Kata as dangerous defensive threats for the ‘Ikale Tahi.
“They are stacked with talent, all these teams, and it’s going to be a great series,” Wheeler told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“You mentioned that Tonga side, I’ll tell you one place where I wouldn’t be running, and that is down the midfield channel.
“Fetuli Paea, Solomone Kata and Malakai Fekitoa, you are running into boulder shoulders, all of them. That is like a worst nightmare for any football player running into any of those blokes.
“I would absolutely hate that, but, yeah, excitement machines across all of the teams.
“I look at the Samoan side, the continuity that they’ve got, the guys that have been playing together throughout the season, the Fijian side with all those players from the Drua, I just think they’re going to be so competitive across the board.
“You mentioned the eight players, ex-Wallabies, that are in the Australian A side, it’s going a doozy of a series and I think there’s going to be some big hits and some highlight reels, plenty of highlight reels, in that series.”
The Pacific Nations Cup kicks-off next Saturday when Australia A take on Samoa at ANZ National Stadium in Suva at 1pm local time. That match will be followed by a clash between Fiji and Tonga at the same venue at 3:30pm.
The competition will then be taken to Churchill Park in Lautoka, where Samoa will play Tonga and Fiji will host Australia A on July 9, before the competition is finishes with matches between Tonga and Australia A, and then Fiji and Samoa, on July 16.
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