Preview: Fiji v Tonga

Date published: June 10 2016

There will be plenty at stake when Fiji square off with Tonga in their Pacific Nations Cup clash in Suva on Saturday.

With this encounter also serving as qualifier for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, both sides will be determined to hit the ground running. 

If their performances at last year's World Cup is to be used as a yardstick, then this encounter should be a battle of contrasting styles with Fiji having the edge amongst the backs while Tonga are expected to dominate up front with their heavier pack.

Both sides, however, have the ability to give the ball plenty of air so don't be surprised if this is an entertaining affair with the teams attacking from all areas of the field.

Despite being without the services of behemoth utility back Nemani Nadolo, who made himself unavailable for selection due to personal reasons, and stalwarts like Manasa Saulo and Akapusi Qera, who are involved in the Top 14 play-offs, Fiji head coach John McKee has selected a strong matchday squad.

Regulars like Leone Nakarawa, Vereniki Goneva, Campese Ma'afu and captain Sunia Koto are expected to lead the Flying Fijians' charge while the selection of Highlanders flyer Patrick Osborne is a bold one which should strengthen the hosts' attack.

Koto is happy with the team's make-up and expects them to do well.

"It's a good team, a good blend of experienced and young boys," he told the Fiji Times.

"A lot of these boys have played with their clubs and have really stepped up and that's why the coaches have named them. We're excited about the new team and the blend and mixture in the team."

Tonga have a new head coach in former Wallaby back-row Toutai Kefu and there's an air of expectancy and excitement in their ranks. Kefu's assistant Sateki Tu'ipulotu expects a tough assignment.

"Any Pacific island team playing against each other is always hard. You know the physicality," he told Radio New Zealand.

"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 match is also momentous occasion as Welsh referee Nigel Owens will take charge of his 71st Test and in the process will become the most experienced international referee of all time, taking over from Jonathan Kaplan of South Africa, who refereed 70 Tests during his career.

Although it's an important Test for Owens, he revealed that there won't be anything different in his preparation. 

“It’s an honour to be appointed to this important match and I will prepare in the same way as I always do,” said Owens.

“Indeed, every time I take the field as a referee it is an honour and even more so when it’s a Test match.

“I don’t think anyone goes into refereeing in order to break records like this but I suppose what it says is that I’ve managed to stay at the top level of the game for a while now so there is a lot of satisfaction and pride that comes with that."

Ones to watch:

For Fiji: All eyes will be on Highlanders winger Patrick Osborne, who will make his Test debut. Osborne is a devastating attacker who played a pivotal role in the Highlanders' triumphant 2015 Super Rugby campaign. Osborne's finishing is one of his main strengths but he's also creative and has the ability to bring out the best in his team-mates and combines superb vision with fine offloading ability.

For Tonga: Although they didn't set the world alight at the World Cup last year, Tonga's captain Nili Latu impressed with his leadership skills at the global showpiece. The Newcastle Falcons stalwart is a seasoned campaigner, who leads by example and will be expected to take the challenge to the Fijians with ball in hand and also be at the forefront of the Ikale Tahi's defensive efforts.

Head-to-head: The battle in the front row between Fiji captain Sunia Koto and Tonga's Elvis Taione should be an explosive one as both players are excellent with ball in hand and also solid in defence. Both will be expected to get their respective sides over the gainline with strong carries and don't be surprised if they also put in some big hits.

Previous results:

2015: Fiji won 30-22 in Suva
2014: Fiji won 45-17 in Lautoka
2013: Fiji won 34-21 in Tokyo
2012: Fiji won 29-17 in Lautoka
2011: Tonga won 32-20 in Lautoka
2011: Fiji won 27-12 in Lautoka
2011: Tonga won 45-21 in Lautoka
2010: Fiji won 41-38 in Apia
2009: Fiji won 36-22 in Nuku A'lofa

Prediction: Although this will be a hard-fought encounter, the home side will have the edge, albeit by a narrow margin. Fiji to win by five points.

The teams:

Fiji: 15 Samisoni Viriviri, 14 Patrick Osborne, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Seremaia Baikeinuku, 11 Adriu Delai, 10 Ben Volavola, 9 Nemia Kenatale, 8 Nemia Soqeta, 7 Malakai Ravulo, 6 Naulia Dawai, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Tevita Cavubati, 3 Leeroy Atalifo, 2 Sunia Koto (c), 1 Campese Ma'afu 
Replacements: 16 Viliame Veikoso, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Taniela Koroi, 19 Savenaca Tabakanalagi, 20 Eremasi Radrodro, 21 Henry Seniloli, 22 Serupepeli Vularika, 23 Benito Masilevu

Tonga: 15 Tevita Halaifonua, 14 Pila 'Iongi, 13 Nafi Tuitavake, 12 Viliami Hakalo, 11 Taniela Kilioni, 10 Latiume Fosita, 9 Tane Takulua,  8 Sione Kalamafoni, 7 Jack Ram, 6 Nili Latu (c), 5 Uili Kolo'ofai, 4 Dan Faleafa, 3 Sione Faletau, 2 Elvis Taione, 1 Eddie 'Aholelei
Replacements: 16 Sione Anga'aelangi, 17 Kama Sakalia, 18 Fusi Malimali, 19 Opeti Fonua, 20 Sione Tau, 21 Wayne Ngaluafe, 22 Apakuki Ma'afu, 23 Kali Hala

Date: Saturday, June 11
Kick-off: 15:00 local 
Venue: ANZ National Stadium, Suva
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Brendan Pickerill (New Zealand)