Preview: Fiji v Maori All Blacks

Date published: July 10 2015

Fiji will kick off their 2015 calendar by facing the Maori All Blacks in Suva this Saturday looking for an opening win.

Into their second year with head coach John McKee, the general feeling is that Fiji are beginning to make real progress.

Four wins from their seven Tests last year was a positive return, although admittedly one of those was a 108-6 win over Papua New Guinea. However, Fiji did push Wales close during their November Test with a 17-13 defeat and lost by similar margin to Samoa. Their only major loss came with a 40-15 defeat to France in Marseille.

That sense of progress is coupled with excitement as two young talents, Benito   and Ben Volavova, make their debuts for the Flying Fijians this weekend.

"I talked to John McKee couple of months ago and he said that he is interested in me joining the boys and the squad," Volavola told the Fiji Times this week.

"It didn't hit me until it was after couple of days when I realised the opportunity. There are good players around and I need to work hard to make my place.

"It is a great opportunity for me to play for Fiji and get the calling to play for my native country," he added.

"I thank the Fiji people for their support so far and I hope that they continue to support us. We believe we do have potential in the team to do very well."

Colin Cooper has put together an exciting Maori All Blacks side and highlighted the need for the group to manage the travel demands of playing in Suva.

Steve Hansen will be delighted by the return of scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow who missed the entire Super Rugby campaign through injury, but Saturday is also a family affair.

Akira and Reiko Ioane started at flanker and wing respectively, while Marty and Damien McKenzie bring their double act from the Chiefs to Fiji.

Elliot Dixon, the man of the match in the Super Rugby Final, is on the bench.

The Maori All Blacks have not lost a match since they were defeated by Leicester Tigers back in November 2012, defeating Canada and the USA in 2013 before winning their two-match series with Japan last year.

Player to watch:

For Fiji: How can you not keep a close eye on the great man, Nemani Nadolo. The Crusaders winger was outstanding in Super Rugby as he scored some spectacular tries out on the left wing, finishing with nine scores and making countless clean breaks. Nadolo has real persence and will often draw in as many defenders as he beats. He is also Fiji's first-choice goalkicker, giving him a vital role to play.

For Maori All Blacks: There are plenty of young talents on display like the McKenzies along with Otere Black on the bench, but we'll go with Akira IoaneThe outstanding player at the recent U20 World Championship in Italy, before that Ioane was tearing up trees for the Blues in Super Rugby as a rare highlights in their otherwise dismal campaign. A pure athlete who makes ground with every carry.

Prediction: A stern test for Fiji in the first game of the year, but can the Maori All Blacks gel quickly enough? This should be high-scoring, with the visitors perhaps just having the edge. Maori All Blacks by 5!

The teams:

Fiji: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Benito Masilevu, 13 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Gabby Lovobalavu, 11 Nemani Nadolo, 10 Josh Matavesi, 9 Nemia Kenatale, 8 Akapusi Qera (c), 7 Malakai Ravulo, 6 Dominiko Waqaniburotu, 5 Leone Nakarawa, 4 Api Ratuniyarawa, 3 Manasa Saulo, 2 Tuapati Talemaitoga, 1 Campese Ma'afu.
Replacements: 16 Villiame Veikoso, 17 Peni Ravai, 18 Isei Calati, 19 Nemia Soqeta, 20 Masi Matadigo, 21 Niko Matawalu, 22 Ben Volavola, 23 Napolioni Nalaga.

Maori All Blacks: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 Matt Proctor, 12 Charlie Ngatai (c), 11 Kurt Baker, 10 Marty McKenzie, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Blade Thomson, 7 Mitchell Crosswell, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Jacob Skeen, 3 Ben May, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Josh Hohneck, 19 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Otere Black, 23 Jason Emery.

Date: Saturday, July 11
Venue: ANZ National Stadium, Suva
Kick-off: 15:00 local (03:00 GMT)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Rohan Hoffman (Australia)