10 Jun 2016

Sport: Tonga and Fiji kick off RWC qualifying

1:06 pm on 10 June 2016

Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification kicks off in the region on Saturday when the Pacific Nations Cup gets underway in Fiji.

The home side meet the Tongan 'Ikale Tahi in what promises to be a typically willing encounter.

With none of the Pacific teams having qualified automatically for the next world cup, competition could be even more fierce than usual between the neighbourly rivals.

Tonga have a fresh look at their helm with former wallaby star Toutai Kefu heading a coaching team that includes former Tongan internationals, Sateki Tu'ipulotu, Siua Taumalolo, and Tevita Taumoepeau.

Tonga assistant coach, Sateki Tu'ipulotu.

Tonga assistant coach, Sateki Tu'ipulotu. Photo: Photosport

Tu'ipulotu said the match marked the start of a new age of Tongan rugby.

"It is a new era because obviously we looked at the world cup, we don't blame what's happened but we've got to look forward. With the new blood coming in and new players, we've got to look to the future," he said.

"Obviously our target is 2019 Rugby World Cup so this PNC (Pacific Nations Cup) is very, very important to us. If we can get off on the right foot then we are on our way of qualifying for 2019"

Sateki Tu'ipulotu said despite both teams being in the same boat in terms of world cup qualification, the Fijians posed a formidable challenge.

Tonga, along with Samoa, had a disappointing 2015 World Cup campaign but Fiji battled gallantly and came away with credit in what was regarded as the 'pool of death' which included the likes of Australia, England and Wales.

Sateki Tu'ipulotu said the Flying Fijians would be tough at home.

"Any Pacific island team playing against each other is always hard. You know the physicality," he said.

"Obviously Fiji coming off their rugby world cup, they did very well in the 'pool of death'. Fiji's going to be a hard task but I'm sure our players will be up for the task. The key is to play as a team. Do the simple stuff right, do the basics well."

The Tongans will have two new outside backs on Saturday with former New Zealand Sevens representative Nafi Tuitavake and Grenoble's Taniela Kilioni making their debuts.

North Harbour's Nafi Tuitavake tackled by Counties Manukau's Richard Judd during the ITM Cup match between North Harbour and Counties Manukau. QBE Stadium, Auckland, Saturday 12 September 2015. Copyright Photo: Raghavan Venugopal / www.photosport.nz

Nafi Tuitavake turning out for North Harbour. Photo: Photosport

Uncapped prop Sione Faletau also gets a start.

There are six other debutants on the bench while captain and flanker Nili Latu will become the highest capped Tongan player in history when he runs out for his 48th test.

Meanwhile former All Black training squad member and Highlanders player Patrick Osborne will make his debut for Fiji on the wing.

Loose forward Naulia Dawai also gets his first cap for the Flying Fijians.

Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne is set to make his test debut for Fiji this month.

Highlanders wing Patrick Osborne is set to make his Fijian debut. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The full Fiji team:

Campese Ma'afu, Sunia Koto (capt), Leeroy Atalifo, Tevita Cavubati, Leone Nakarawa, Naulia Dawai, Malakai Ravulo, Nemia Soqeta, Nemia Kenatale, Ben Volavola, Adriu Delai, Seremaia Baikeinuku, Vereniki Goneva, Patrick Osborne, Samisoni Viriviri.

Reserves: Viliame Veikoso, Peni Ravai, Taniela Koroi, Savenaca Tabakanalagi, Eremasi Radrodro, Henry Seniloli, Serupepeli Vularika, Benito Masilevu

The full Tonga team:

Eddie 'Aholelei, Elvis Taione, Sione Faletau, Dan Faleafa, Uili Kolo'ofai, Nili Latu (capt), Jack Ram, Sione Kalamafoni, Tane Takulua, Latiume Fosita, Taniela Kilioni, Viliami Hakalo, Nafi Tuitavake, Pila 'Iongi, Tevita Halaifonua.

Reserves: Sione Anga'aelangi, Kama Sakalia, Fusi Malimali, Opeti Fonua, Sione Tau, Wayne Ngaluafe, Apakuki Ma'afu, Kali Hala.