19 Sep 2015

Sport: Pacific teams confident as RWC kicks off

12:02 pm on 19 September 2015

After months of preparation, expectation and debate the wait is finally over.

Rugby World Cup kicks off this weekend with all three Pacific teams happy to talk up their chances.

The Webb Ellis Trophy

The Webb Ellis trophy Photo: Supplied: RWC

Fiji is taking a positive approach in their so-called "pool of death", which features hosts England, Rugby Championship winners Australia and Wales, as well as Uruguay.

First up is England in the opening match of the tournament at Twickenham on Saturday morning.

Expecting a raucous atmosphere, head coach John McKee revealed during the week his team used loud speakers during training camps in an effort to prepare for the atmosphere at the home of English rugby.

Fiji rugby coach John McKee.

Fiji rugby coach John McKee. Photo: AFP

While the bulk of the 82,000 strong Twickenham crowd will be barracking for the home side but coach John McKee says the Pacific Nations Cup winners are embracing the occasion.

"The atmosphere on Friday's going to be tremendous and Twickenham being such an iconic stadium in the world of rugby that's a great motivator for our players. Yes it's England's home and they'll be playing on that but for our players it's a great motivation to play in such a great stadium on such a great occasion", he said.

John McKee says England have a big and powerful team but he believes his side is capable of matching them in the physicality stakes.

"If you look at areas of advantage yeah I think the athleticism, the speed and the strength of our players is a point of difference, from most teams that we play against, but you need to do the work in winning the ball and controlling other areas of the game to be able to utilise those strengths", he said.

Fiji coach John McKee has proved a smart operator since being elevated to the head coaching role early last year. He has prior World Cup experience with the Tongan team and has also coached in Europe, Australia and with the Pacific Islanders.

The Fiji team outside Hampton Court Palace in London, following their official Rugby World Cup welcoming ceremony.

The Fiji team outside Hampton Court Palace in London, following their official Rugby World Cup welcoming ceremony. Photo: Supplied / England Rugby 2015

Fiji also possess one of the potential stars of the World Cup in blockbusting wing Nemani Nadolo who has set Super Rugby alight the past two seasons with his power, pace and finishing.

Not since Rupeni Caucaunibuca in 2003 have the Flying Fijians had such a player in their ranks. He will likely play on the wing but has slotted into midfield for his country and even kicks goals on occasion.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca during his time playing for Fiji.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca during his time playing for Fiji. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

His physique is reminiscent of one Jonah Lomu and given space and opportunity he could produce some equally eye-catching moments over the next few weeks.

Nemani Nadolo is expected to be a key figure in Fiji's Rugby World Cup campaign.

Nemani Nadolo is expected to be a key figure in Fiji's Rugby World Cup campaign. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Australia, Wales and Uruguay also await Fiji in Pool A - the so-called 'pool of death' - but Deacon Manu, who captained Fiji at the 2011 World Cup, says the Flying Fijians back themselves to compete against the best.

"They've called it the pool of opportunity and there is an opportunity to take teams on - the big guns - [and] you've got four teams there in the top ten in the world. In terms of the preparation from last World Cup they've gone to that next level which was needed after 2011 and I think these guys have developed really well and hopefully come up with a few surprises", Manu said.

Samoan rugby has come a long way since the last World Cup.

Manu Samoa rugby team performs the siva tau ahead of their match against the All Blacks in Apia

Manu Samoa rugby team performs the siva tau ahead of their match against the All Blacks in Apia Photo: RNZI / Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia

The country's 2011 campaign was plagued by off-field dramas.

The captain at the time, Mahonri Schwalger, was never selected again after criticising the Samoa Rugby Union and team management for their conduct during the event.

Mahonri Schwalger last played for Samoa at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Mahonri Schwalger last played for Samoa at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Photo: AFP

Problems came to a head at the end of last year when players threatened to boycott a test against England unless their concerns were addressed.

The SRU has since undergone significant change: appointing a new CEO, signing an historic agreement with the players and committing to governance, management and financial reform.

Mahonri Schwalger says things are now looking up both on and off the field.

"What happened in the last four years is something good came out of it. The boys are sort of in that right environment and they're enjoying their environment. The management are working really hard and they're willing to do whatever they can [to] provide these guys to prepare them, so it's a good sign and in order for these guys to perform in the best of their ability they've got to make sure that everything runs smoothly. From what I've heard the boys are really happy and things are going well so hopefully they will have a greater tournament this year", he said.

The Manu made the knockout rounds of the 1991 and 1995 World Cups and Schwalger is tipping them to make the quarter finals and possibly the semis this time around.

Another former Manu captain, Semo Sititi, played in three World Cups, and agrees that this is a huge opportunity.

"We've got a massive chance to make the quarter final based on what we have in our pool. South Africa probably is our toughest game but we also have Scotland and Japan. I don't think the boys will underestimate any games but it seems that it's a good chance to make the quarter final".

Former Manu Samoa international and current Samoa Under 20 coach Semo Sititi.

Former Manu Samoa international and current Samoa Under 20 coach Semo Sititi. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Semo Sititi says he had some concerns about the team prior to the historic test against the All Blacks in July but a lot of those have since been addressed.

He says the halves will be crucial to Samoa's chances of victory and a lot will rest on the experienced shoulders of halfback Kahn Fotuali'i and first five Tusi Pisi to steer the team around the field.

Tusi Pisi, Ken Pisi and George Pisi pose at the welcoming ceremony for the Samoa Rugby World Cup team at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

Tusi Pisi, Ken Pisi and George Pisi pose at the welcoming ceremony for the Samoa Rugby World Cup team at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Photo: AFP

Head coach Stephen Betham has been something of a go-to man for Samoan rugby in recent years. He led the national sevens team to the World Series title in 2010 and briefly returned to that role for the 2013 World Cup.

Manu Samoa head coach Stephen Betham.

Manu Samoa head coach Stephen Betham. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

He replaced Fuimaono Titimaea Tafua as Manu Samoa coach in 2012 and has proved popular with the players, even during the difficult standoff between the team and SRU. Under his coaching, outspoken players including Schwalger, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu and Daniel Leo have been phased out of the national team but Betham has developed a squad that is physical, full of experience and more than capable of opening up defences.

Betham urged his players last month to improve their discipline, saying Pacific Islands teams were targeted more by officials.

Lock Kane Thompson will miss Samoa's opening game against the United States on Monday, after he was banned for two matches for punching Barbarians hooker Saia Faingaa.

After that verdict Betham said the language barrier can be a challenge for some players but they are often hard done by.

"Not just us - I think Fiji, Tonga. Pacific Islanders no doubt get hammered hard. We're always hammered in the World Cups and I think that's one of the main things we're going to look at is getting the discipline through on-field, off-field, all those sort of things. I think that's one area which we've worked hard at this week is discipline and we're still working hard at trying to get the set pieces right because, for us, set pieces are non-negotiable. Once we get those sorted out our free-flowing rugby should come in, our attacking rugby".

Meanwhile Tonga coach Mana Otai has been quietly building the 'Ikale Tahi team as they bid to reach the knockout rounds for the first time.

Tonga rugby coach Mana Otai

Tonga rugby coach Mana Otai Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Among the notable victories during his tenure was a 21-15 triumph over Scotland in Aberdeen.

For the fourth time in the past five World Cups Tongan have been drawn in the same pool as the All Blacks.

Argentina also present a major obstacle but the word in camp is they are quietly confident of a first ever quarter-final appearance.

'Ikale Tahi captain Nili Latu leads a huddle during training.

'Ikale Tahi captain Nili Latu leads a huddle during training. Photo: Tonga Rugby Union

The 'Ikale Tahi have an experienced core with captain and veteran flanker Nili Latu to become Tonga's most-capped international during the pool phase. His omission from the 2011 World Cup squad became a political football in Tonga and the 33 year old makes a welcome return.

Fellow veterans Aleki Lutui, Hale T-Pole, Fetu'u Vainikolo and Vunga Lilo help form the core of the Tongan team. Fly-half Kurt Morath has proved adept with the boot in recent years while there are also high hopes for Melbourne Rebels wing Telusa Veainu, who made his debut during the Pacific Nations Cup.

Tonga's Vungakoto Lilo leads a victory haka after the France v Tonga pool A match of the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup at Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand on Saturday, 1 October 2011. Photo: Dave Lintott / photosport.co.nz

Tonga's Vungakoto Lilo leads a victory haka after they beat France at Eden Park in 2011 Photo: Photosport

Telusa Veainu is competing in his first Rugby World Cup for Tonga.

Telusa Veainu is competing in his first Rugby World Cup for Tonga. Photo: AFP

Inoke Afeaki made his debut for Tonga at the 1995 World Cup and captain the team at the 2007 tournament.

He says even in the last eight years there has been massive change in the professionalism of island countries.

"Our preparation was usually comprised of two to three weeks before Rugby World Cup ringing up players - even when we were training together - trying to fill up spots, sorting out visas at the last minute and getting players over there, blowing the budget before we arrived there because everything was done late. That has changed - the administrative side of the game in the islands has picked up a lot - and had a lot of help from World Rugby".

Inoke Afeaki played for Tonga from 1995-2007.

Inoke Afeaki played for Tonga from 1995-2007. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Inoke Afeaki says Tonga has never arrived at a World Cup in better shape than this year.

"The preparation during the Pacific Nations games against Fiji, Samoa, Japan, Canada and America was pretty good. I would easily say that this is the best-prepared Tongan team I've ever seen and it bodes well. They've all spent time in the gym getting their bodies right. They're playing a pattern of rugby that will work - we will win and lose but the level of competition among the Tongan games and their rivals will be pretty good".

Tonga go into Saturday night's opening match against Georgia on a four-match winning streak and played Romania two weeks ago in an effort to prepare themselves for the Georgians physical style.

Inoke Afeaki played club rugby in France with a number of Georgian players and says even the All Blacks should be nervous about their power, strength and ability at set pieces.