Rugby World Cup 2019 qualification kicks off in Oceania when the World Rugby Pacific Nations Cup 2016 gets underway in Fiji on Saturday.
With none of the Pacific Island teams having qualified automatically for the game’s flagship tournament, competition will be fierce among these friendly but keen rivals.
Suva will be the venue on Saturday when Fiji welcome Tonga to their shores as they seek to win the tournament for a record fourth time. No game between Pacific Island teams really needs added context to give it an edge but the fact that the result of this match will count towards qualification for Japan 2019 will surely concentrate the minds of players, coaches and supporters and add another dimension to the action.
The PNC 2016 and 2017 is effectively the regional qualification tournament for RWC 2019 and will feature that triumvirate of Pacific powerhouses, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Played over two seasons, the top two sides will qualify for the RWC 2019 as Oceania One and Two. The team that finishes third will play the second team in Europe, home and away, with the winner on aggregate qualifying for RWC 2019 and the loser proceeding to the global repechage for one last chance to win a place in Japan.
World Rugby Chairman Bernard Lapasset said: “Over the years, the Pacific Island teams have made a rich and important contribution to rugby, not least on the Rugby World Cup stage. The Pacific Nations Cup is always a hard-fought tournament and, with RWC 2019 qualification at stake, I expect this edition to be no different.
“Rugby is growing all over the world and there are now 7.73 million men, women and children participating in a sport that continues to break new frontiers and bring people together through the character-building values of solidarity, passion and respect.
“It is because of the tremendous commercial success of our showcase Rugby World Cup that this growth has been made possible and sustainable. The commercial revenues generated by recent events has enabled World Rugby to invest unprecedented funds in rugby worldwide with the Pacific Islands receiving significant financial investment that is pumped into development, tournaments and training, totalling £4 million in 2016.
“Over the next three years around 4,000 players from more than 80 nations across all six World Rugby regions participate in about 200 matches in a qualification process that involves well-established and popular regional tournaments. I am sure that there will be surprises along the way and it will be a fascinating journey.
“Rugby World Cup is a magical tournament that creates history and brings joy to millions. We look forward to welcoming the world to Japan 2019 and what promises to be a very special and ground-breaking event."
The Fiji v Tonga game at ANZ Stadium will feature Rugby World Cup 2015 final referee Nigel Owens of Wales, who will be taking charge of his 71st international, making him the most experienced test referee of all time, passing the record held by retired South African official Jonathan Kaplan.
With 12 teams having secured their place at Japan 2019 courtesy of finishing in the top three of their respective pools, the remaining eight places will be determined by a process of regional and cross-regional qualifiers and, for the first time, a stand-alone round-robin repechage tournament to determine the final qualifier in 2018. All qualified teams will be known by November 2018.