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By FORU Media Unit
Hometown favourites Samoa have both experience and recent form on their side ahead of the 2011 Oceania Sevens Championship in Apia on Friday (local time).
The fourth edition of the Tournament is the qualifying event for regional non-core teams to participate in the HSBC Sevens World Series Tournaments of Wellington and Hong Kong in 2012, and has drawn almost all of the top teams in the region.
Fiji, Tonga, Papua New Guinea, American Samoa and New Caledonia make up Pool A while the Samoans are joined by Australia, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Solomon Islands in Pool B of the two-day Tournament at Apia Park.
HSBC Sevens World Series champions New Zealand will not be participating in the event.
The Stephen Betham-coached Samoans edged Fiji 21-19 in the Pacific Games in Nouméa in early September and have named eight of that squad for Apia.
David Lemi and Ofisa Treviranus return to the Sevens after playing a starring role at Rugby World Cup 2011 along with Alatasi Tupou who was first capped for Samoa Sevens in 2007.
The only debutant is 18-year old Talaga Alofipo who was part of Samoa’s successful Junior World Trophy team in South Africa in June, along with teammate Robert Lilomaiava.
Speedster Lilomaiava scored two tries, and set up the third, for his club side Vaiala as they won the final of the Marist Sevens 17-14 over Marist St Joseph’s last weekend, and was named the Tournament’s best player as his club claimed the title for the first time ever.
However two key Samoan players are unavailable as they take up professional contracts in Europe.
Veteran forward Alafoti Faosiliva heads to Toulon to provide cover for injured Argentinian Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who is out for six months with a knee injury, and utility back Fautua Otto has started with English club Bristol.
Young Aussies Building For Gold Coast
Conversely, defending Oceania champion Australia field a young squad in Apia.
Coach Michael O’Connor introduces a new crop of players, with 11 of the 12 being under 23 and Hamish Angus the only survivor from the team that made the final of the HSBC Sevens World Series in Twickenham in May.
Former Australian Schools captain Jordan Tuapou (a loose forward from the Eastern Suburbs club in Brisbane), Australian U-20 centre Bill Meakes (Northern Suburbs, NSW) and national U-19 representative Lindsay Crook (an 18-year old winger from Gungahlin) are among those looking for the opportunity to shine ahead of the World Series.
Australia, as the Aussie Thunderbolts, warmed up for Samoa with an appearance in the final at the Central Coast Sevens in NSW, losing 12-14 to Queensland side Sunnybank, and have acclimatised in Samoa at the Marist Sevens.
After winning three matches on the opening day the Australians went down to local clubs Moata’a 5-12 and Apia 7-14 to finish Plate runners-up, and that experience will help as they look to repeat a 34-12 win over Samoa in Darwin a year ago.
Top Seeds Blood New Talent
Fiji were also early arrivals into Samoa where (playing as the Fiji Barbarians) they lost to Vaiala 14-19 in the Cup semifinal of the Marist Sevens.
The top seeds have a youthful side with no fewer than nine of the side making their debut throughout this year, including Fiji Under-20 centre Semi Radradra who suffered a knock on the weekend but is expected to take his place on Friday.
Captain Setefano Cakau and Watisoni Votu add the experience to the squad which also features Lepani Botia, James Brown, Livai Ikanikoda, Waisale Lagilagi, Apakuki Vuaviri, Timoci Davu, Joji Ragamate, Sevuloni Lutu and Aporosa Tabulawaki.
Several players from last season, including Emosi Vucago, Joeli Lutumailagi and Mitieli Nacagilevu, have opted to stay and continue their preparations with the Police for the Sukuna Bowl.
Fiji coach Joe Savou, whose job is up for grabs ahead of the IRB season, told Radio Fiji the Marist Sevens was excellent preparation.
“Playing clubs here in Samoa and going against players who are renowned in the world sevens stage is not easy and it was a very big challenge for them,” he said. “They've played very well especially in their first time together.”
All To Play For In Apia
The HSBC Sevens World Series core teams - Samoa, Australia and Fiji - should lead the challenge for the title while Papua New Guinea, especially, and Tonga are a chance of causing an upset.
The latter two met in the playoff for third last year at Darwin, with Tonga triumphing 12-7, but the ‘Pukpuks’ have improved since then, claiming the Bowl at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games and defeating top-tier nations on the HSBC Sevens World Series circuit.
Coached by former All Black Shane Howarth, they also pushed Fiji to extra time in Noumea and finished up with the bronze medal, thereby qualifying for the inaugural HSBC Gold Coast Sevens World Series on November 25-26.
Tonga were absent from the Pacific Games and their best international result recently is making the Bowl final at Wellington in February 2011.
The two teams, along with Niue and the Cook Islands, will have their own competition within a competition in Apia, as the top two non-core sides at the 2011 Oceania Sevens Championship qualify for Wellington, and the top performing non-core team qualifies for Hong Kong in the 2011-12 HSBC Sevens World Series.
Tom Kingston was nearly a Sevens player five years ago, just as he entered the professional rugby ranks.