They played out a thrilling 30-30 draw in round two in Sacramento, Samoa denying Fiji victory with a last gasp penalty by Patrick Fa’apale, and both reached the final with unbeaten records in the six-team competition.
Injuries have robbed coach Stephen Betham of hooker Motu Matuu (delayed concussion), scrum-half Pele Cowley (shoulder) and centre Paul Perez (rib), the latter having scored a brace of tries in the draw with Samoa.
The unavailability of Cowley has resulted in Kahn Fotuali’i joining the squad in Vancouver, the scrum-half initially having been rested for the Pacific Nations Cup. He comes straight into the starting line-up and his experience will be key to Samoa’s hopes of beating Fiji to the title.
Having only just scraped past Canada with a last-minute try to reach the final, Betham is looking for his starting line-up and bench to keep the intensity high for the full 80 minutes in the battle between sides separated by less than six tenths in the World Rugby Rankings.
“We came out of that last game against Canada happy to take the win, but a little bruised from the things we didn’t get right,” said Betham.
Plugging the gaps
“In both the test matches against Canada and Fiji we allowed the opposition to dominate us in particular areas. The focus of our selection and our training has been to plug those gaps and to have more urgency about our game.”
His Fiji counterpart John McKee will also be looking for a full match performance, having seen the Flying Fijians surrender strong positions in the second half of both encounters with Samoa and Japan, three yellow cards against the Brave Blossoms almost proving costly.
There are three changes to the Fijian forward pack with Sunio Koto coming in at hooker and Sakiusa Matadigo at number eight with captain Akapusi Qera moving to flanker. Nikola Matawalu returns at scrum-half with Asaeli Tikoirotuma starting on the wing and Gabiriele Lovobalavu and Waisea Nayacalevu reunited in the centres.
The final day of the Pacific Nations Cup will begin with the third place play-off between Tonga and Japan, the ‘Ikale Tahi going into the match on the back of wins over both Canada and USA in comparison to the
Brave Blossoms having lost to USA and Fiji.
Tonga have won the last three meetings between the two nations dating back to 2011 and welcome back captain Nili Latu, who was rested for the win over the USA Eagles with a slight calf injury. Hale T’Pole also returns to the starting line-up, while Otulea Katoa replaces rested winger Telusa Veainu.
Eddie Jones has made six changes, one of them positional, from their 27-22 loss to Fiji last time out.
North American battle
The Brave Blossoms have a new second-row pairing in Hitoshi Ono and Shoji Ito, while Ryu Koliniasi Holani returns at number eight. Kosei Ono starts at fly-half with Harumichi Tatekawa moving out to inside-centre, while Karne Hesketh gets the nod on the wing.
Following this match will be the battle for North American pride in the fifth place play-off between Canada and USA. The hosts have lost all three of their matches in the Pacific Nations Cup, including the heart-breaking loss to Samoa last time out.
Coach Kieran Crowley has again made wholesale changes as he continues to build towards Rugby World Cup 2015, with hooker Aaron Carpenter taking over the captaincy with number eight Tyler Ardron ruled out with injury along with scrum-half Gordon McRorie.
The Eagles, who beat their Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool B opponents Japan in round two, have been moving in the right direction during the Pacific Nations Cup according to coach Mike Tolkin and are ready for the challenge that facing their neighbours Canada brings.
“I think, as a squad, we have made some major progress that only a prolonged period of time together and matches provide,” Tolkin said. “Although we have a 1-2 mark at the moment and the last game wasn’t at an acceptable level, we have a solid foundation set of how we want to play the game, we know who our top and bottom players are, and we have solidified a positive squad environment.
“It is a more mentally tough group prepared to accept the challenges before us.”