Minnows preparing for World Cup

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The expanded IRB Pacific Nations Cup kicks off this Saturday when Samoa host Fiji at Apia and two of the sport's most famous minnows begin their preparations for this year's World Cup.

The six-team tournament was due to start on May 26, but Samoa and Fiji brought their round three fixture forward to avoid a scheduling clash on June 9 when Fiji play Australia in Perth.

The national teams of Japan and Tonga are also involved in the competition along with New Zealand's Junior All Blacks and Australia A, who are competing for the first time.

Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Japan have all qualified for the World Cup while the Australia A and Junior All Blacks players will be hoping to force their way into the Wallaby and New Zealand squads.

"The introduction of Australia A to the new-look IRB Pacific Nations Cup adds a further competitive edge to the round-robin tournament, importantly guaranteeing an unprecedented number of top-level matches for Fiji, Japan, Samoa and Tonga as they step up their preparations for Rugby World Cup 2007 in France" IRB head of rugby services Mark Egan said in a statement.

The Pacific Nations Cup was established last year after the IRB initiated a global strategic programme to try and help narrow the widening gap between the haves and have-nots of world rugby that marred the 2003 World Cup in Australia.

Although the 2003 tournament was heralded as a great success after producing record profits and a breathtaking final, one aspect of the event left an ugly stain on the game's reputation.

The opening rounds were marred by a series of horribly lopsided results as the poorer countries were unable to field their best players because of problems with their rich European paymasters.

Even the draw was unfairly stacked against the minnows, prompting the then Tongan coach Jim Love to say his team, which had to play four pool matches in just 14 days, felt as though they had been treated like "second-class citizens".

Samoa provided one of the few highlights when they gave eventual champions England the fright of their life in the pool stages.

The Samoans are drawn in the same group as England and South Africa in France, and coach Michael Jones said the Pacific Nations Cup would provide his players with the chance to spring an upset.

"We've always had potential, as a nation and as a people, so we know that if we can get it right on our day anything can happen," Jones told Fijian radio.

"We are firm believers in the David and Goliath analogy. We believe that we can slay a giant on our day."

Schedule of matches for the 2007 Pacific Nations Cup:

May 19 - Samoa v Fiji, Apia
May 25 - Tonga v Australia A, Sydney
May 26 - Samoa v Junior All Blacks, Apia
May 26 - Fiji v Japan, Lautaoka, Fiji
June 2 - Tonga v Japan, Coffs Harbour (Australia)
June 2 - Australia A v Samoa, Coffs Harbour
June 2 - Fiji v Junior All Blacks, Suva
June 9 - Tonga v Junior All Blacks, Nuku'alofa
June 9 - Australia A v Japan, Townsville
June 16 - Japan v Samoa, Sendai City
June 16 - Fiji v Tonga, Lautoka
June 16 - Junior All Blacks v Australia A, Dunedin
June 23 - Samoa v Tonga, Apia
June 23 - Fiji v Australia A, Suva
June 24 - Japan v Junior All Blacks, Tokyo