PREVIEW: 2016 Pacific Tests

Three Rabbitohs will represent their heritage on Saturday across two games at Parramatta’s Pirtek Stadium, when Fiji take on Papua New Guinea, and Samoa clash with Tonga.

Rabbitohs NRL squad members, Michael Oldfield (Tonga) and Kirisome Auva’a (Samoa), will face off from opposing sides of half-way – Auva’a set to make his Test debut playing in the centres, while Oldfield will play his second match for Tonga playing on the wing. North Sydney Bear, Samisoni Langi will also play for Samoa.

Meanwhile, Rabbitohs NYC player, Tevita Cottrell, will line-up for Fiji against PNG, with Norths’ Jokatama Dokonivalu also set to represent the Bati.

See below for full match previews courtesy of NRL.com

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Fiji v Papua New Guinea
Pirtek Stadium
Saturday, 5.35pm

Words: Tony Webeck – NRL.com

When Papua New Guinea went through the group stage of the 2000 World Cup undefeated (including wins over France and Tonga), it appeared rugby league's most passionate nation was on the verge of international significance.

Since then they have failed to win a game in the past two World Cups and have lost their past seven Test matches but as they prepare to host World Cup matches for the first time in PNG in 2017 there is hope on the horizon.

The introduction of the PNG Hunters to Queensland's Intrust Super Cup has exposed a greater number of players to regular competition at a high level and showcased them to NRL and Super League clubs who have come calling.

Now contracted to the Canberra Raiders, Kato Ottio is believed to be close to an NRL start after some strong displays in the Intrust Super NSW Premiership and Rod Griffin has graduated from the Ipswich Jets to a full-time contract with the Wests Tigers.

The return of David Mead to the Kumuls colours gives the team a major boost with Nene Macdonald, Luke Page and Kurt Baptiste also boast NRL experience.

Semi-finalists at the 2013 World Cup, Fiji go into this game without Korbin Sims and Jayson Bukuya due to suspension and Marika Koroibete, Viliame Kikau and Apisai Koroisau due to injury and will rely heavily on the experience of Kevin Naiqama, Akuila Uate and Sisa Waqa out wide and young forwards Kane Evans, Daniel Saifiti and Eloni Vunakece.

Both teams are guaranteed passage into next year's World Cup but with few opportunities to play Test matches need to start building now.

Fiji are currently ranked seventh in the world and the Kumuls 14th (behind Serbia, Italy and Canada) but this represents a chance for PNG to show there is now little between them.


Watch out Bati:
The threat posed by David Mead at fullback is obvious to anyone who has watched the Titans play this season but one player who Fiji need to be particularly wary of is crafty hooker Wartovo Puara. A member of the PNG Hunters team that qualified for the Intrust Super Cup semi-finals in their second season last year, Puara is small in stature but big in footy smarts and is capable of causing havoc around the ruck with his speed off the mark. If the big Fiji forwards start to slow up, he's the man that can take advantage.

Watch out Kumuls: It's been three years since Sisa Waqa last represented Fiji at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and with his move to French rugby now less than two months away he'll be keen to go out with a bang. An enigmatic player with 95 NRL games to his name, Waqa has been forced to bide his time in NSW Cup with the Raiders this season but will no doubt have something special planned in what will likely be his final game for the Bati. He's never scored a try in four Tests with Fiji; I'm tipping that to change on Saturday night.

Key match-up: Kane Evans v Luke Page. The loss of Korbin Sims through suspension puts further pressure on Roosters prop Kane Evans to lead the way up front and while he will tower over the PNG pack he faces a willing combatant in Luke Page. Having spent time with both Canberra and St George Illawarra in the past two seasons, Page is a ferocious runner of the footy who will push off the back fence at Pirtek Stadium before charging into the Fijian defence. When these two big boppers collide it will rock the foundations and inspire their teammates around them.

History: Last year's Pacific Test represented the first meeting between these two island nations with Fiji running out 22-10 victors over a Papua New Guinea team boasting only two players with NRL experience at the time. While Fiji have steadily climbed the international rugby league ranks the Kumuls have gone the other way, losing all seven of their most recent Test matches.

Match officials: Referee: Robert Hicks; Touch Judges: Russell Turner and Tim Roby; Review Officials: Bryan Norrie and Jason Robinson; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

The way we see it: The key outs of Sims and Bukuya level up the NRL experience within the two sides considerably and bring PNG right into the contest. More Kumuls players than ever before are training and playing at a high level and with David Mead at fullback have a class player in a key position. Fiji's greatest advantage comes up front where they have a host of towering props who will challenge the PNG defence but the Kumuls are used to playing well above their weight. The combination of brothers Ase and Watson Boas in the halves might just be enough for PNG to cause the upset. Kumuls by six points. 

This preview first appeared on NRL.com

 

Tonga v Samoa
Pirtek Stadium
Saturday, 7:40pm

Words: Martin Gabor – NRL.com

Anybody who questions the relevance of international rugby league need only watch this match to get an understanding of how much the sport means to the Tongan and Samoan communities. 

Last year's match on the Gold Coast – watched by 12,336 diehard fans – and the 2013 version in Penrith produced atmospheres that could rival some of the biggest spectacles on the planet.

No one will ever forget Tongan fans storming the pitch three years ago with their side up 36-4 as Samisoni Langi lined up a conversion, or Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard's gravity-defying tackle on Jorge Taufua in the corresponding fixture last year.

The match has been moved this year to Parramatta – a suburb in Sydney's western suburbs that is brimming with people from the Pacific Islands – and will cap off a triple-header of action guaranteed to have fans wanting more. 

Tongan coach Kristian Woolf has gone for a mix of youth and experience with the common denominator that every member of his squad has played at least one game of NRL. 

Matt Parish has picked an explosive Samoa backline, a monster forward pack and the diminutive halves pairing of Pita Godinet and Fa'amanu Brown. 


Watch out Tonga:
It appears Samoa has adopted the mindset that size most certainly does matter. Sam Kasiano and Junior Paulo have been named in the starting side and will combine to form one of the biggest front row pairings ever seen on a footy field. The Bulldogs big-bopper is listed at 130kg while Paulo is 'only' 118kg. It'll be a monumental challenge for Tonga's Peni Terepo and Felise Kaufusi to contain their Samoan counterparts, who will be ably supported by Leeson Ah Mau, Frank Pritchard and Sauaso Sue in the run-on side on Saturday night.

Watch out Samoa: This fixture hasn't traditionally been dominated by the halves, but it does appear that the Tongans have a distinct advantage in that area heading into Saturday's clash. Feleti Mateo boasts over 200 games of NRL experience including two grand finals. While not a noted five-eighth per se, the Sea Eagle has magnificent ball-playing skills for a big man and his size will be a problem, especially for the 170cm tall Pita Godinet. His partner in the halves, Samisoni Langi, was man of the match in the 2013 clash and was named in the NYC Team of the Year as well.   

Key match-up: Tony Williams v Frank Pritchard. While they are unlikely to come face-to-face on Saturday night, the battle between 'T-Rex' and 'Frank the Tank' will still be one for the ages. The former Canterbury teammates combined to terrorise opposition defences with Williams often starting on the left edge before shifting to the other side of the field to accommodate his more senior teammate. The Bulldogs back-rower hasn't had the best start to 2016 but will be keen to deliver against the now Hull FC enforcer.

The history: Played 3; Tonga 1; Samoa 2. It seems incredible that these two rivals have only played each other on three occasions. Samoa won the first meeting at the 2008 World Cup before Tonga cruised to a 32-point victory in 2013. The 'Usos' responded to win last year's memorable encounter 18-16.

Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and Brett Suttor. 

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.

The way we see it: This will be fast, physical and full of feeling. Expect both sets of fans to provide an atmosphere that will live long in the memories of footy fans. The result itself could easily go either way with both teams brimming with NRL experience. It could come down to a piece of magic from the flashy backs, a bulldozing charge by one of the forwards, or even a moment of wizardry from the bench. Sitting on the fence seems tempting, but we'll say Samoa by 4. 

This preview first appeared on NRL.com