Fiji coach John McKee has made five changes to his starting line-up for Saturday’s match against hosts Tonga as the reigning World Rugby Pacific Nations champions go in search of the result that will secure them their place at Rugby World Cup 2019.
A win or a draw at the Teufaiva Stadium in Nuku'alofa will be enough for Fiji to become the second team after USA to emerge from the qualification process for the tournament in Japan in two years’ time.
Asaeli Tikoirotuma (pictured), who played a starring role in helping London Irish win promotion back to the English Premiership, comes in at outside centre for his first appearance in national colours this year. He replaces Albert Vulivuli, while the only other change to the backline sees Timoci Nagusa step in at full-back at the expense of Kini Murimurivalu.
In the forwards, captain Akapusi Qera shifts from number eight to openside flanker with Nemani Negusa taking his place at the back of the scrum. There are two new starting props in Campese Ma’afu and Manasa Saulo.
TIER ONE SCALPS
Wins over Italy and Scotland in their last two internationals have boosted 10th-ranked Fiji’s rating to 78.06 and they can close to within a third of a point of Argentina if they win well on Saturday.
However, qualifying for Rugby World Cup 2019 as Oceania 1 is clearly their primary focus though this weekend, something they will achieve with a win or bonus-point draw against Tonga.
"We take confidence from our success against Italy and Scotland but those wins count for nothing in terms of RWC qualification. It is this weekend's match performance that is important,” said McKee.
“This match against Tonga is very important for us to achieve our goal of finishing as Oceania 1.”
Taking results from the last 2016 and 2017 Pacific Nations Cup into consideration, the top-ranked team will occupy the spot reserved for Oceania 1 in Pool D where matches against Australia, Wales, Georgia and Americas 2 (either Canada or Uruguay) lie in await.
Heading into the final two rounds of the Pacific Nations Cup 2017, Fiji top the standings on eight points with Tonga and Samoa level on five. Fiji travel to Apia to play Samoa in the final match next Saturday.
McKEE WARY OF 16th MAN
Tonga kept alive their hopes of qualifying as Oceania 1 or 2 – and avoiding a play-off against a European team – with a tremendous 30-26 win over Samoa last weekend in what was their home test match in eight years.
"We expect a very physical encounter with Tonga on Saturday," McKee said. "Tonga played very well in winning against Samoa last week which will give them a lot of confidence coming into this match and they will be backed by a very loud local crowd.
"We will need to be absolutely on top of our game and not be distracted by the crowd."
A victorious Tonga will move up one place in the World Rugby Rankings, possibly two, depending on the margin. They are currently in 13th place but have Georgia and Japan within their sights.
The ‘Ikale Tahi starting team shows two changes to the one that downed Samoa, with Rugby World Cup veteran Nili Latu and Nafi Tuitavake replaced at flanker and centre respectively by Jack Ram and Tevita Taufui.