Sport: World Cup or bust for Fiji, Cook Islands rugby teams
Fiji and the Cook Islands will play-off this weekend in a winner-takes-all clash for a place at next year's Rugby World Cup.
Fiji and the Cook Islands go head to head in Lautoka this weekend for a place at next year's Rugby World Cup.
The hosts are overwhelming favourites to qualify for a fifth straight World Cup finals but the challengers insist they have a fighting chance.
Vinnie Wylie reports.
A Rugby World Cup qualifying match is new territory for the Cook Islands. The Cookies earned their shot at the big time by winning last year's Oceania Cup in Papua New Guinea, beating PNG, Solomon Islands and Tahiti. And with the stakes now even higher coach Barry George has been able to call on a number of new faces, including Japan-based number eight Stephen Setephano and former Queensland Reds centre Joel Rapana.
BARRY GEORGE: There's 13 new to the environment so it's sort of half and half really. A little bit of the stuff we're doing is the same but in the end it's everyone having to have the ability to dump where they were at in their club seasons, or what teams were doing that they've just come out of, and changing to what we're doing and taking it on board so that's the big major work on.
The Cookies lost both of their warm-up games in New Zealand last week against provincial side Thames Valley and the Blues Development team. However captain Stan Wright, who plays for French second division club Narbonne, believes that with another full week of training together the team has a genuine chance.
STAN WRIGHT: I was quite surprised how quick the boys came together. A lot of guys from all over the world: it took us about two days and seems like we've been together for a long time. Obviously a lot of the boys [were] experiencing Cook Islands culture for the first time so it was an eye-opener for them. Now we've had a few feeds with the Cook Island community in Auckland. I think it was good that they really got to see how much it meant to the people that we went there and just played our best really. We know we can beat this time, it's about putting it out on the paddock.
Fiji have had a more high profile build-up to Saturday, beating Italy and Tonga before a narrow 18-13 defeat against Manu Samoa at the weekend. And, after initial doubts, it's been confirmed Fiji will have a full-strength team to pick from, in line with IRB regulations, including Super Rugby stars Nemani Nadolo and Asaeli Tikoirotuma. Head coach John McKee says they don't know too much about the Cook Islands team but says they respect them and won't be taking the result for granted on Saturday.
JOHN MCKEE: In terms of the relative position of both teams, I mean I'm always wary that in these types of situations people can take the opposition lightly. We certainly won't be doing that and I will be emphasising that with the players that it's like a cup game - it's winner takes all - and it's how you perform on the day. You don't get any extra points for where you are on the world rankings or how many caps you've got in your team or whatever - it's about the performance next Saturday.
The winning team will qualify for Pool A at next year's World Cup, alongside England, Australia, Wales and another playoff winner.
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