Fiji, Samoa to play at home away from home at RWC
Updated: September 23, 2011, 21:41
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) A sold-out crowd of 60,000 filled with expatriate Samoans and Fijians watching their teams clash for the first time at the Rugby World Cup with the loser realistically out of quarterfinal contention: it's safe to say the 45th meeting between the Pacific Islanders is also the biggest.
Eden Park will be rocking on Sunday once the challenges from each team are issued just before kickoff - the siva tau for Samoa and cibi for Fiji - to continue a rivalry that stretches back to a split two-test series in 1924.
"It's fantastic to have two teams going face to face in a World Cup in Auckland, of all places, and showing the cibi and hakas against each other,'' Fiji captain Deacon Manu said. "It's a fantastic occasion and you can certainly tell the intent from the hakas early on that it's going to be a match to remember.
"It's going to be a typical game of Pacific Island rugby really. It's fantastic it's a sellout, so that adds extra emphasis on it. Whenever we play the Samoans or the Tongans, it's always a physical match and there's a lot of big hits. There's a lot of entertaining rugby.''
Like many players in both teams, Manu was born in New Zealand - he even played for New Zealand Maori against the 2005 British and Irish Lions - and the chance for them to form a link between playing for their homeland in the land of their birth adds an extra resonance.
"For any Kiwi rugby player growing up you always wanted to play on Eden Park, it epitomizes the game really,'' Samoa lock Daniel Leo said. "It's going to be a dream fulfilled. It's going to be very emotional and extra special for me because of that Kiwi connection.''
Heightening the sense of occasion is what is at stake: the losing team almost certainly being demoted to also-ran status in Pool D.
Samoa is currently second, one point above Fiji and Wales in the battle for the runner-spot behind runaway leader South Africa. But with the Welsh still to play Namibia, which has lost all 14 matches across four World Cups, anything less than a victory will be fatal for either side.
In fact, Fiji needs a point just to keep its mathematical hopes alive. Even with a win, Samoa will still need to beat the defending champion Springboks next Friday to have a shot of reaching the quarterfinals and matching its achievement from the 1991 and 1995 tournaments.
With so much riding on the result, the role of the flyhalves will be crucial.
Nicky Little became the first Fijian to play at four World Cups when he came off the bench in the 49-3 loss to South Africa last week. The 35-year-old pivot is his country's most-capped player (69) and highest points-scorer (670), but his body has paid a price for his longevity.
"It's not the best but it's doing what it should be doing at the moment,'' he said. "My head's still young and I wish I could still do everything that I was doing 10 years ago.''
Fiji coach Samu Domoni is counting on Little's composure, bringing him in among five player changes and several positional shuffles.
"It's a pressure game and he's comfortable in that area from the first minute,'' Domoni said. "He does everything we ask. He's been doing it all this time and we're comfortable putting him in at No. 10 to distribute what we need.''
Lock Seko Kalou replaces Wame Lewaravu and Fiji will field a new backrow of Netani Edward Talei, Mavu Ravulo and Sisa Koyamaibole.
Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi has recovered after straining his hamstring in the 49-12 win over Namibia to miss the 17-10 loss to Wales last week. Blindside flanker Taiasina Tuifu'a, who injured his ribs against Namibia, and tighthead prop Census Johnston are the only other new players.
For Manu and Samoa captain Mahonri Schwalger, the responsibility of leading proud rugby nations is not a burden they carry lightly.
"This team is all about our people,'' Schwalger said. The result will mean a lot to them and put a smile on their face.''
Manu echoed those sentiments.
"It's an amazing country,'' he said. "You see school kids in bare feet running with bamboo sticks for goal posts and running around with what you think is a rugby ball but it's actually a plastic Coke bottle. We're representing those people, the kids of Fiji. It's fantastic to be given that opportunity.''
Fiji: Kini Murimurivalu, Vereniki Goneva, Gaby Lovobalavu, Seremaia Bai, Naipolioni Nalaga, Nicky Little, Nemia Kenatale; Sisa Koyamaibole, Mala Ravulo, Netani Edward Talei, Leone Nakarawa, Seko Kalou, Deacon Manu (captain), Sunia Koto, Campese Ma'afu. Reserves: Talemaitoga Tuapati, Setefano Somoca, Rupeni Nasiga, Akapusi Qera, Vitori Tomu Buatava, Albert James Vulivuli, Waisea Sedre Luveniyali.
Samoa: Paul Williams, Sailosi Tagicakibau, George Pisi, Seilala Mapusua, Alesana Tuilagi, Tusi Pisi, Kahn Fotuali'i; George Stowers, Maurie Fa'asavalu, Taiasina Tuifu'a, Kane Thompson, Daniel Leo, Census Johnston, Mahonri Schwalger (captain), Sakaria Taulafo. Reserves: Ti'i Paulo, Anthony Perenise, Filipo Lavea Levi, Manaia Salavea, Jeremy Sua, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, James So'oialo.