So its here again: Pacific culture, Six Nations’ hopefuls and the best of Tier 2 rugby collide in Suva for the 2018 edition of the PNC.
This tournament looks mighty different from what we’re used to from it.
Firstly, Georgia – the country trying to stake a claim for a Six Nations berth – will join the competition for the first time in their history, in a big month where they will play Tonga, Fiji and also Japan in a friendly.
Teams will only play two competition games, meaning that the highest points accumulator in those weekends will take home the title – an obvious advantage to Tonga who avoid playing favourites Fiji within those two weekends – presumably due to Samoa having a crucial World Cup home-and-away versus Europe 2 beginning on June 30.
All games will be played as double headers at ANZ Stadium in Suva, where the Ikale Tahi host the Lelos first up, followed by the Flying Fijians playing Manu Samoa.
Tonga vs Georgia
The Tongans go into this match in a bit of form, having outdone expectations last year with a upset victory over Samoa, and almost knocking over Fiji, ultimately losing 13-9.
The last time they played, back in 2016, it was Georgia winning with a late try, 23-20, however all of those games were at home, so playing three consecutive matches on tour will be a new challenge for the Ikale Tahi.
Georgia are, as I mentioned earlier, desperate for more Tier 1 rugby action, but while the PNC isn’t that, it’s about as good as it gets for Tier 2.
The Lelos come off a narrow 16-15 victory over a French Barbarians outfit in a friendly last week, and prior to that: two wins and a close loss versus USA, Canada and Wales last November.
Sunwolves hooker and inaugural Georgian Super Rugby player, Jaba Bregvadze will play from the bench for the men in maroon, for the first time since he moved to the Japanese team, so look out for him on the field
Expect the Georgians to be too strong for the Tongans, this Lelos side is hugely underestimated for mine.
Georgia by 10.
Georgia continue to improve. (AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND LANGLOIS)
Fiji vs Samoa
Manu Samoa are in a very different boat to the Flying Fijians for this game: Fiji having already qualified for the Rugby World Cup, while Samoa still need to beat Europe 2 in a home-and-away fixture directly after this tournament.
This is the game where Super Rugby names, both past and present, really start to kick in as Tusi Pisi, TJ Ioane, Ed Fidow and Renold Lee-Lo, to name a few, will line up in Samoa’s 23.
Ben Volavola, Leone Nakarawa, and Henry Seniloli all will run out for Fiji, while Semi Radradra and Josua Tuisova, both standouts for the Barbarians, will miss the first match due to 7s duties.
Fiji won all four of their games at home last year; Italy, Scotland, Tonga and Samoa all suffered losses at their hands, so expect the Samoans to struggle once again.
The last time they met, Fiji won 38-16, while in 2016 it was again Fiji with the victory, 26 points to 16
In the aftermath of the Ewen McKenzie saga, some of the cooler heads at the (then) ARU would have been focused on the legal fallout, others the cultural damage whilst some of the more astute may have been concerned with the stability and reputational damage of the ARU.