Japan and Samoa begin the defence of their respective World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup conference titles (snappy name, eh?) in a week’s time and while this is probably the most confusing competition in professional sports (it changes format on a seemingly annual basis and occasionally the teams competing in it differ too) the fact that three of the main protagonists will clash to qualify from Rugby World Cup Pool B in about 10 weeks makes this a fascinating tournament. Without trying to explain how the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup will be won or lost, or trying to decipher why last season teams competed in intra-conference fixtures while this year all fixtures are inter-conference (did I mention it was confusing?) now would be an apt time to consider how the USA, Japan and Samoa may fare at the RWC in September and hopefully into mid October if they progress to the RWC knock out stages.
Pool A at the RWC has been awarded the hyperbolic moniker “Pool of death” by those who claim to know these things because there is a real chance that one of the team’s who appeared in the 3rd and 4th place play off at 2011’s RWC will fail to progress to the Quarter Final stages as a result this Pool will be scrutinised in microscopic detail over the coming months, however Pool B is far more intriguing. Samoa, Japan and the USA not only all finished in the top 2 of their PNC conference’s (a tournament where an average of 6.17 tries were scored each game) last year but all 3 sides are separated by just 7 places and just 8 ranking points in the current World Rugby rankings (fellow Pool B competitors Scotland are also ranked between Samoa and the USA but I have a bad feeling about their chances of progressing to the Quarter Finals given their 2015 6 Nations embarrassment).
USA are able to call on players who have been more than catching the eye in the Aviva Premiership in recent seasons not least Samu Manoa (who has just left Northampton to join Toulon and win a boat load of trophies) and Saracens utility back Chris Wyles (who has won his fair share of trophies during his time playing for the North London club). Manoa was called “perhaps the finest number 8 playing the game in the northern hemisphere” by ESPN Scrum and he amassed 130 points in his 122 games for the Saints, the rather unfortunate thing about ESPN’s description is he’s more likely to feature at Lock for the USA with the hirsute USA 7’s star Danny Barrett battling it out for a starting spot at 8 with Cardiff Blues new signing Cameron Dolan. Barrett is not the only member of the 7’s side represented in the Eagles squad, Fijian born Andrew Duratolo, former Saracens (now London Welsh) Centre Thretton Palamo and Zach Test who is uncapped by the 15’s side were all part of the USA team who recorded their first tournament victory on the World Rugby 7’s circuit in May, at Twickenham where the Eagles will hope to feature in the Quarter Finals (probably against the hosts England). The success of the 7’s side illustrates how dangerous the Eagles will be with ball in hand (Takudzwa Ngwenya didn’t feature for the 7’s side but he’s been one of the most electric wingers in European rugby for 8 years and Blaine Scully was the top try scorer in last year’s PNC with an impressive 5 in 2 games) so their progression through the tournament will largely depend on how successful they are at securing possession with which to launch their open field runners, the back row will be vital in this endeavour and when Samu Manoa has to play in the tight five to allow Barrett or Dolan be joined in the back row by talismanic captain Todd Clever and the 29 times capped Scott Lavalla who plays in Paris for Stade Francais you know the Eagles will compete effectively at the breakdown. The main area for concern for the Eagles will be the front row at scrum time, but with so many differing interpretations available to officials and different officials looking for different offences at the scrum that will be an area of concern for everybody come September.
Samoa are ranked by World Rugby and last season won the Pacific Island conference of the Pacific Nations Cup by virtue of their first win over Fiji in 16 years. However Samoa’s players are amongst those who have been subject to pressure from their clubs regarding International availability. In May this year Daniel Leo retired from International rugby and claimed that up to 13 of his fellow Samoan teammate’s may be feeling similar pressure to place their club career ahead of their International aspirations in order to receive new contract’s. Stade Toulousain’s Fabien Pelous expressed “surprise” that their 34 year old prop Census Johnston played for Samoa against the All Blacks in the historic Test match this week as they understood that Johnston had retired from International rugby in April, so off the field things have not been simple for Samoa which is a shame when they potentially have so much talent from which to select their RWC squad. Against New Zealand they started a front row who were just 7lbs away from a collective mass of 60 stone, Johnston alone accounted for over 20 of those stones so his inclusion would solidify their scrum. Samoa’s 2 main areas of weakness are at Fly Half where they have traditionally struggled for an accurate kicker from hand and team discipline, they lost the Test against the All Blacks having scored the same number of tries as them, with New Zealand converting 6 penalty kicks compared to the 3 by Samoa.
Japan won the Asia/Pacific conference of the 2014 World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup and are ranked 3 places higher than the USA in World Rugby’s current rankings and whilst they will probably have the most experienced squad of the so called minnows in Pool B they have only ever won 1 RWC game and that was back in 1991. It’s obviously difficult to write off the reigning PNC champions but the emergence of Japan’s “Top League” as a go to destination for foreign rugby players who are attracted by the relatively short season and the inflated salaries which are on offer must be a detrimental factor for rugby union’s development in the land of the rising sun. Just 6 of Eddie Jones’ 37 man RWC squad currently play outside Japan and not all of them regularly feature for their respective Super Rugby franchises. Again a lack of a quality Fly Half will surely be a problem for Japan but their biggest stumbling block may be their style of play, they like to play high tempo attacking rugby but so do the other teams in Pool B and 4 of them may just do it better.