After a solid victory over the Azzurri in Suva last week, Fiji head across Viti Levu to Lautoka, where they begin their Pacific Nations Cup against Tonga. Expectations have been reasonably high for the Fijian squad, who have had access to most of their top professionals for once, and the showed a few trademark flashes of brilliance against Italy. On the other hand, not much was expected of Tonga, missing several top players, but they put in a respectable effort against Samoa to earn a hard-fought draw.
The Ikale Tahi have lost the services of top lock Lisiate Fa’aoso this week, but are able to include Leicester’s Steve Mafi on the bench, with former New Zealand u20 second row Daniel Faleafa promoted to the starting lineup. The only other change among the forwards is in the reserves, with Worcester’s Ofa Fainga’anuku replacing Kama Sakalia. Captain Nili Latu was at his dynamic best against Samoa, and will need to be just as influential this week against a very good Fijian back row.
The halfbacks have been rotated this week, with Auckland Blues squad member Tane Takulua handed his run-on debut, and veteran kicker Fangatapu Apikotoa recalled at flyhalf. Ever-dangerous Fetu’u Vainikolo replaces Otulea Katoa on the right wing, with Viliami Helu called onto the bench after arriving during the week.
John McKee has made two changes to his starting pack. Apisai Naikatini and Nemani Nagusa drop to the bench, replaced by Leone Nakarawa and Malakai Ravulo respectively. Captain Akapusi Qera moves to the back of the scrum after playing openside last week. The front row is retained despite having considerable difficulty against the Azzurri, and Sunia Koto is strangely absent on the bench, replaced by Viliame Veikoso.
The backline is almost entirely different, with only Jonetani Ralulu and Nemani Nadolo in the same spot as last week. Livewire scrumhalf Nikola Matawalu switches places with Nemia Kenatale, and Adriu Delai takes over from Asaeli Tikoirotuma at centre. Timoci Nagusa moves to fullback to make room for an all-new wing pairing of Watisoni Votu and the amazing Sireli Bobo, 38 years young and still a top class finisher. Looming large on the bench is Stade Francais dynamo Waisea Nayacalevu, set to win his first cap almost 2 years to the day since his last.
Tonga should make a good fist of things in the opening forty minutes, but Matawalu should help wear down the back row enough to make room for the deadly wide men later in the match. The visitors, while reasonably strong in the scrum, are not in the same class as the Italians and won’t prove nearly as troublesome. Expect the home side to win fairly comfortably by 17 points.
FIJI vs TONGA
Saturday, June 14, 03:00 GMT, Lautoka
Referee: Rohan Hoffman (ARU)
Assistants: J.P. Doyle (RFU) & Mathieu Raynal (FFR)