The Pacific Nations Cup 2017 is a stepping-stone tournament, on the road to a bigger objective. The three nations competing for it are dreaming of reaching the 2019 Rugby World Cup, so these qualifying matches are primary to those ambitions.
And while the eyes of so many are lining up on the big test this Saturday; new Zealand v British and Irish Lions, some will still appreciate the efforts of the Tier Two nations. They should be respected, they play with as much emotion as any other side. It must be applauded. They have targets, goals and dreams–and they enjoy it too.
Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have been competing in a series to determine the two Oceania RWC qualifiers to progress to the Japan event. Decided over Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) results from 2016, and from three matches played this year–the combined points will open the door for two worthy contestants.
While that is still a fine opportunity, the actual rivalry is more important. The history and the pride, the purest motivating factors, that would make competing at the 2019 Rugby World Cup ‘all that much better’.
Pacific Nations Cup 2017 – Results to Date
You have to look back to June, 2016 for the opening clash of this series.
Match 1: Fiji 23 Tonga 18 | Match 2: Fiji 26 Samoa 16 | Match 3: Samoa 30 Tonga 10
While those results handed Fiji the advantage, the innovative World Rugby stipulation has empowered Tonga to redeem themselves. And in the opening game of the 2017 season, was a prime opportunity.
Doubling as the first home test for Tonga in eight years. The hosts would put on their very best, in front of a crowd of around 10,000 at the newly-refurbished Teufaiva Stadium in the Tongan capital. And with that support, it boosted the Ikale Tahi [Sea Eagles].
— Oceania Rugby (@oceaniarugby) July 4, 2017
Last Word on Rugby contributor Jovilis Waqa reflected ‘What a great way to comeback as the hosts held off Manu Samoa, to win 30-26 in front of a vocal local crowd’.
It was a group effort, though with one standout. Sonatane Takulua was the star, as he converted his own try in the second half. That sealed a great effort that not only secured a memorable win, but valuable points. Halfback Takulua was certainly the toast of the home side, and both sides will regroup before taking on table topping Fiji who lead from their wins last year.
The ‘tournament like’ table now reads: Fiji – 8 points | Samoa 5 | Tonga 5
Final Two Matches Left to Play in PNC
The final two matches now provide an opportunity for each side to aquire wins that will go toward several goals. Tonga head coach Toutai Kefu will be pushing his side hard to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. Since their big win over Samoa, the next hill to climb are PNC favourites, Fiji.
The fixture is certainly one the holds plenty of history. Facing each other an amazing 89 times, the record may be a 7-3 advantage for the South Sea Islanders, but Tonga are just as proud. And just as motivated–although, local rivalries can ‘pop up anywhere’.
— 'Akanesi 'Emeline (@aekatoa) July 7, 2017
One man who can instill confidence in his team, is former Wallaby Kefu. “I think it’s an awesome feeling to be back in Tonga, especially to have the home advantage,” was his reaction when asked by World Rugby how the side will feel running out onto their home ground.
“You know how the Tongans celebrate and support – it’s a different kind of animal.”
From the moment the Sipi Tau is performed, expect the entire group and every fan at Teufaiva Stadium will be waving their red flags (see main picture). The highly emotional atmosphere will count for much, but a full 80 minutes is required. Do that, and the pressure goes on Samoa to secure a win over Fiji to deny the Tongan team automatic qualification.
Global Qualifying Process
The very real reward of a place in Japan is close. Fiji will be the best bet, but an upset from the home side may even throw pressure on that leading side. LWOR could imagine if Fiji lost both of their final fixtures….that would be unprecedented, but the game of rugby is full of uncertainties.
And that makes qualifying series and tournaments like this, all the more important. The global qualifying series is pointed towards rewarding improvement. No longer do all the same sides meet at the four-yearly tournament. Now a side has to justify their place, so credit goes to Tonga for using the Pacific Nations Cup 2017 as it is intended. A stepping stone toward higher honours.
The top two sides will gain direct entry, while the third placed team must face a repecharge match against a European nation. And while that might be a possibility, all three teams focus must be on reaching the pinnacle event on merit alone.
And this weekend, Tonga will challenge Fiji. Each team has RWC qualification and important World Rugby rankings points to play for.
Tonga v Fiji – Teufaiva Stadium, Nuku’alofa. July 8, 3:00pm local time.
“Main photo credit”