|'Samurai Spirit' in 2011|
Japan's victory last year was a victory for flair and innovative back-play as the Cherry Blossoms defeated their more illustrious rivals to win the cup for the first time. Their exhillarating 28-27 victory over Tonga was one of the games of the year and showed just how far they had come under the coaching of the now departed All Black legend John Kirwan. It is up to Eddie Jones now to plan Japan's defence.
Today though, we focus on two of the contenders aiming to steal their crown, as Dumptackle rugby blog gives a brief rundown on Samoa and Fiji's chances.
Coach: Stephan Betham
Despite impressive performances against Australia, South Africa and Wales last year, Betham has taken to the Samoan squad with the kitchen broom. Gloucester centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu seems to have suffered due to his freqent outbursts on twitter, as he was barred by the IRB from competing. Former captain Mahonri Schwalger has also paid the price, after criticising Samoan Rugby officials at last year's World Cup. His letter to the Samoan Prime Minister, which detailed a culture of alcohol abuse, mismanagement and dishonesty seems to have cost him his international career.
|Dumping of Scwalger a bad PR Move?|
Key Player: James Johnston
|Johnston a pillar of strength in 2012|
Even with a raft of stars missing, Samoa have enough fire power distributed throughout their forwards and their backline to cause some trouble. They have the best squad in the competition but are they unified? Time will tell. I have a feeling they may come unstuck somewhere along the way. Runner's up medal for Samoa.
Coach: Inoke Male
|Inoke Male planning for the future|
Captain: Netani Talei
|Talei leads by example|
Talei's perormances this year at club level prove that he warrants the captaincy of the national team. In the Heineken Cup he has produced some collossal displays for Edinburgh; full of power and inspiration and has made by far the most yardarge out of any player in the competition. At times he has resembled a runaway train and has undoubtedly been one of the genuine stars of 2012. Talei may lack his predecessor's experience, but like Deacon Manu, one can be sure that he will lead his team by example.
Key Player: Netani Talei
Fiji have all the flair and skills in the world, but one of their consistent failings is that they can sometimes lose their way in matches. I may be stating the obvious, but given the severe lack of experience in this squad, you would have to say that Talei will absolutely key to their hopes. Most of the squad are domestic players and will be new to the PNC. It will be good experience for them and hopefully will help in terms of developing locally based players to be ready for international rugby. If it goes wrong though....it could be horrible watching for their loyal fans.
It's a shame that so many of their star players snub the PNC due to the greater rewards they receive for honouring their contracts in Europe/ Super Rugby... but at the same time is entirely understandable. How great would it be to see Leinster's classy Fullback Isa Nacewa donning the white shirt though?
Prediction - 4th
It's so difficult to come to a decision on this but unfortunately I think Fiji could be wooden spooners this year. They undoubtedly have a lot of talent, but you can't ignore the fact that their squad looks very green. The xperience given to locally based players will help the depth of Fijian rugby in the long run though. Exposure to the grind of International rugby is no bad thing and one has to commend the new coach for his boldness in planning for the future.
Preview of Japan and Tonga to come soon.....