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Preview: Tonga v Canada

13th September 2011 00:33

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Opening fixture at RWC 2011: Canada

Canada open their World Cup campaign against Tonga on Wednesday in a clash where both sides will fancy their chances.

In World Cup terms, Canada and Tonga are relatively familiar foes having faced off in Australia in 2003 and in New Zealand back in 1987, with the North Americans coming out on top on both occasions, although those results will count for nothing this time around.

Grouped with France and New Zealand, either of these sides will harbour serious hopes of emerging from Pool A, but for the losers in Whangerei elimination is almost guaranteed.

The Tongans put on a dogged display against the All Blacks in the tournament's opening game on Friday, confirming that the battle for third place in the group with their opponents on Wednesday and the ever-improving Japan is set to be fierce.

Canada are two places below Tonga in the IRB World Rankings (14th and 12th respectively) but it would be misleading to read too much into those stats or either country's results over the last few years as both are rarely able to line-up full-strength teams outside of the World Cup.

Canada's 2011 RWC team won both their warm-up games over the USA and in the light of their neighbours' result against Ireland on Sunday, one should expect the Canucks to put on a solid performance.

You could even argue that Canada have a slight advantage going into the clash at the Northland Events Centre since Tonga have had to rotate a number of players from the starting XV that did duty just four days ago.

The Islanders have named an all-new line-up from the side that lost 41-10 to the All Blacks, with 11 different players drafted in and the remaining four players switching positions.

Canada coach Kieran Crowley said Tonga's performance against the All Blacks, where they were rewarded with a late try, was a prime example of how rugby's minnows were closing the gap with the top teams.

"It always amazes me in the media how they say that top teams don't fire when they play those teams," he said.

"From experience, the so-called tier-two countries are improving and you can only play as well as you are allowed to play.

"Defensively they (Tonga) were very good, they had a couple of glitches, which the All Blacks were able to get through, but their direct pick-and-go game was good, and the scrum is one of the strongest."

Four of Canada's team are veterans of the 24-7 pool win over Tonga eight years ago. Captain and hooker Pat Riordan said his squad had taken heart from the weekend games and were eager to get their campaign under way.

"One thing coming from watching the games on the weekend, that might be an advantage of playing at the second week, is you see the France and Japan game or Scotland v Romania, they were games that were decided in the last 10 minutes," he said.

"That was pretty exciting for us, there's nothing to say you can't beat a team that's five or six or 10 (ranking) places above you. So in that sense we are champing at the bit to show what we can do."

For the moment, the Canadians can forget about carrying the underdogs' tag because this is far from a mismatch and they have every right to have ambitions for victory.

Players to watch:

For Tonga: We were surprised when Kisi Pulu didn't get a starting berth against the All Blacks. The Perpignan prop has been around the block a few times and was part of the formidable pack that took the Catalan club to the 2009 French champion. Give him an inch and he'll rumble ten yards before you know what's hit you.

For Canada: Clermont lock Jamie Cudmore is one of the most notorious players around. His disciplinary record would make Mike Tyson blush, but he isn't a regular starter for one of the best sides in European club rugby for nothing. If he can keep his temper in check, Cudmore will provide the kind of muscle Canada will need against one of the most physical teams around.

Head-to-head: Canada's main strike weapon is South African-born Glasgow Warriors speedster DTH Van Der Merwe while Tonga will be looking to get the ball wide to former Highlanders pace man Fetu'u Vainikolo. The opposing wings are set to cross paths again in the northern hemisphere since Vainikolo is off to Connacht after the World Cup. With Tonga likely to give the ball plenty of air, they should get to know each other sooner rather that later.

Previous results:

2003: Canada won 24 -7 in Wollongong (Australia)
2000: Canada won 29 - 11 in Vancouver
1999: Tonga won 18-10 in Nuku A'lofa
1987: Canada won 37 - 4 in Napier (New Zealand)
1974: Tonga won 40-14 in Vancouver

Prediction: A tough one to call. Canada didn't look bad against the Australian Barbarians recently, but we suspect they might be outmuscled by the Tongans, who will have loads of support in the stands. Tonga by seven points

The teams:

Tonga: 15 Kurt Morath, 14 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Alipate Fatafehi, 11 William Helu, 10 Taniela Moa, 9 Thomas Palu, 8 Samiu Vahafolau, 7 Sione Vaiomounga, 6 Finau Maka (c), 5 Tukulua Lokotui, 4 Sione Timani, 3 Kisi Pulu, 2 Ephraim Taukafa, 1 Alisona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Aloisio Ma'asi, 17 Soane Tonga'uiha, 18 Halani Aulika, 19 Viliami Ma'afu, 20 Sione Kalamafoni, 21 Viliame Iongi, 22 Alaska Taufa.

Canada: 15 James Pritchard, 14 Ciaran Hearn, 13 DTH Van Der Merwe, 12 Ryan Smith, 11 Phil Mackenzie, 10 Ander Monro, 9 Ed Fairhurst, 8 Aaron Carpenter, 7 Chauncey O'Toole, 6 Adam Kleeberger, 5 Jamie Cudmore, 4 Jebb Sinclair, 3 Jason Marshall, 2 Pat Riordan (capt), 1 Hubert Buydens.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Hamilton, 17 Scott Franklin, 18 Tyler Hotson, 19 Nanyak Dala, 20 Conor Trainor, 21 Sean White, 22 Nathan Hirayama.

Date: Wednesday, September 14
Venue: Northland Events Centre, Whangarei
Kick-off: 17:00 (05:00 GMT)
Weather: Daytime high of 16 C. Odd showers. Modernate Southwesterly winds
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Stuart Terheege (England)