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Pacific nations face off in World Cup warm up
Having made it to the Semi Finals of the past two Rugby League World Cup tournaments, Fiji will be looking to make the perfect preparation to their 2017 campaign with a win on Saturday night. Pulling off a shock 20-18 win over Samoa in their most recent international fixture, coach Michael Potter will be hoping his side can replicate their efforts against a Tongan outfit packed with NRL stars. In previous years a first grade player would be the exception in a lower tier international fixture, but with the likes of Akuila Uate, Suliasi Vunivalu, Waqa Blake and captain Kevin Naiqama lining up for the Bati, fans can expect plenty of enterprising ball movement and skill. Likewise, with a forward pack boasting Korbin Sims, Kane Evans, the Safiti brothers and Viliame Kikau, the Fijians should have little trouble making metres up the middle of the field.
Despite a host of first grade players regularly lining up for Tonga, success at international level hasn't always been forthcoming. Winless in mid-season tests since 2013, coach Kristian Woolf will be hoping the inclusion of several stars with higher representative honours are able to bring their experience to the fore and supplement the enthusiasm of a young, but talented side. While the withdrawals of Sika Manu, Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Michael Jennings and Andrew Fifita will undoubtedly hurt the pacific nation, the likes of Daniel Tupou, Tony Williams and debutant Manu Vatuvei should benefit the side no end in their quest to record their first win since late 2015 against the Cook Islands. Among the key factors for Tonga, the first grade experience of Ata Hingano, Tui Lolohea and Siliva Havili may help break the game open.
Last meeting: Pacific Cup, 2009 - Fiji 26 Tonga 16
Who to watch: While the Fijians boast a backline brimming with pace and a forward pack gigantic in size, the primary weakness for the side has been the lack of an established playmaker. However in Apisai Koroisau, the Fijians may have unearthed a player capable of elevating the side to a competitive force. Playing a major role in the ascendance of the Sea Eagles in recent times, the 24-year-old premiership winner looks set to take on primary playmaking duties on Saturday night which will be of vital importance in determining the winner of the fixture. Facing off against the dangerous Tongan halves pairing of Ata Hingano and Tui Lolohea, Koroisau will be tasked with a huge responsibility, but should he succeed the Fijians may well enjoy the spoils of victory at the end of 80 minutes.
Having dominated the international arena with the Kiwis for over a decade, Saturday marks a rare first for Manu Vatuvei. Set to make his test debut for Tonga following the withdrawals of Michael Jennings and Konrad Hurrell, the man dubbed ‘The Beast' will be looking to use the occasions to kick-start his season after languishing in reserve grade over the opening two months of 2017. Managing just a single NRL fixture so far, there can be no questioning the feats Vatuvei has achieved throughout his career and with the chance to immerse himself back into test football, look for the 31-year-old to make the most of chance with Tonga.
The favourite: With both sets of backs and forwards on par with one another, the first grade experience of halves Ata Hingano and Tui Lolohea has Tonga installed as slight favourites.
My tip: If for nothing else Saturday's clash should provide a spectacle that bodes well for the upcoming World Cup. In saying that Fiji has made it to the final four of the past two major tournaments; it's difficult to say with any certainty but look for the Bati to get up in a free flowing, but closely fought contest. Fiji by 4.
1. Kevin Naiqama 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Waqa Blake 4. Taane Milne 5. Marcelo Montoya 6. Sitiveni Moceidreke 7. Henry Raiwalui 8. Daniel Saifiti 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Kane Evans 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Tui Kamikamica 13. Korbin Sims 14. James Storer 15. Jacob Saifiti 16. Eloni Vunakece 17. Ben Nakubuwai 18. Akuila Uate
1. William Hopoate 2. Manu Vatuvei 3. Brenko Lee 4. Moses Suli 5. Daniel Tupou 6. Tuimoala Lolohea 7. Mafoa'aeata Hingano 8. Leilani Latu 9. Siliva Havili 10. Addin Fonua-blake 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Tony Williams 13. Joe Ofahengaue 14. Sione Katoa 15. Patrick Kaufusi 16. Leivaha Pulu 17. Siosaia Vave
Referees: Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials: Tim Roby, Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees: Luke Patten, Steve Chiddy;