Pacific Cup players to watch come RWC

Fetu’u Vainikolo, TJ Ioane, Jack Lam, Leone Nakarawa, Jeff Hassler, Sonatane Takulua
Fetu’u Vainikolo, TJ Ioane, Jack Lam, Leone Nakarawa, Jeff Hassler, Sonatane Takulua

Fetu’u Vainikolo – Tonga & Oyonnax

European rugby fans should already be well acquainted with Fetu’u Vainikolo, the electrifying Tongan winger who for the last four seasons has been plying his trade in Ireland with Connacht and lately, England with Exeter Chiefs.

A winger built very much in the Pacific Islander mold – average height but heavy with muscle, Vainikolo is a fascinating blend of speed and strength. Although much better suited to run around players with his blinding pace and acceleration rather than smash through them, rest assured Vainikolo’s ability to do both when necessary extremely well is what makes him the most potent attacking weapon Tonga have in their arsenal.

A delight to watch in the open field and broken play, Vainikolo possesses the raw attacking instincts that make him a danger to score whenever he has possession of the ball regardless of field position - epitomised by his four tries in four games for Tonga this summer - and as such, can turn a game on its head instantly.

Although Tonga face a tough challenge to progress from a World Cup pool containing both New Zealand and Argentina, Vainikolo’s ability to create instant highlight-reel tries from nothing as he did against the USA will make it a joy to watch him make some of the best wingers in the world look extremely foolish.

TJ Ioane/Jack Lam – Samoa & Sale Sharks/Bristol

Although only employed together occasionally for Samoa during the Pacific Nations Cup this year, TJ Ioane and Jack Lam are a dynamite backrow combination that could be key to Samoan success at the World Cup.

Both are able to switch seamlessly between blindside and openside flanker giving Samoan head coach Stephen Betham the option to rotate as needed; both are powerful and astute ballcarriers, strong enough to make repeated breaks the gainline but tactically aware to the point they are an absolutely lethal duo from close-range, and both are dominant at the breakdown, able to slow opposing momentum through disruptive rucking and winning turnovers.

Lam is the slightly more rounded of the pair, a touch more proficient at the breakdown and as a leader on the field whilst Ioane is the slightly quicker and more destructive player with a reckless abandonment of fear of harm that makes him such a difficult player to bring down in the open field.

Should Betham choose to separate the pair, likely having Lam start with Ioane coming off the bench, he has two players who can cause their opponents fits for the entire 80 minutes.

But Lam and Ioane’s versatility also gives Betham the luxury of having them start start together in the World Cup - a recklessly abrasive pair of flankers able to frustrate and intimidate the opposition in all aspects on the field as Samoa look presumably to sneak into the second Pool B quarterfinal spot behind South Africa.

Leone Nakarawa – Fiji & Glasgow Warriors

In a tournament comprising the South Pacific teams who are most renowned for their production of attacking talent, it would come to most people as quite a surprise that the joint top-try scorer in this year’s Pacific Nations Cup was actually a Lock.

However for Glasgow Warriors supporters already accustomed to Leone Nakarawa’s bulldozer-like running, soft hands and great on-field awareness, Nakarawa’s try-scoring exploits for Fiji in this year’s competition are less surprising.

Indeed Nakarawa has been a force in both international and domestic rugby over the last 12 months, playing a starring role in Glasgow Warriors’ unexpected Rabo12 Championship win last season whilst also serving as a key leader in the pack for a Fijian side whose maturation in terms of forwards play has been slow to catch up with the rest of the global international elite. 

Although Nakarawa is a versatile driving force at the lineout, and as a scrummager, like the rest of the Fijian squad the 6ft 6’, 17 stone Second Rower is most comfortable with ball in hand, sing his giant physique to burst through gaps in opposing defensive lines and his unorthodox, incredibly loose style of ball-carrying allows him the maximum amount of opportunities to off-load the ball in the tackle.

Fiji’s impressive unbeaten record at this year’s Pacific Nations Cup has allowed them to come into the 2015 World Cup riding a wave of momentum that will make them a very difficult and awkward opponent for the likes of Wales, England and Australia to face. And as a core component of the current Fiji side, Nakarawa’s unique blend of skills in the heart of the Fijian scrum will mean he’ll take centre stage in any upset victories the Fijians cause.

Jeff Hassler – Canada & Ospreys

One of the few bright spots for a fairly disappointing Pacific Nations Cup for Canada was the continued rise to stardom of winger Jeff Hassler.  Only 23, Hassler has been a regular fixture on the Canadian wing since 2012 although the World Cup will represent the first major tournament he has appeared in.

Although he failed to score this summer for Canada on home soil, Hassler won plaudits for the tenacious defence and strong work ethic he exuded in a losing effort for his and his teamamtes that saw them beaten in all four matches they contested.

Not only is Hassler lightning quick both on the touchline as a wing and in midfield as a centre as well, but the Okotoks, Alberta native also has an uncanny ability to break tackles that typically wouldn’t be associated with his 5ft 10’ frame.  A surprisingly ferocious tackler to boot, Hassler is the embodiment of being as ‘tough as nails’ and has made a seamless transition from competing in Sevens competitions to the fifteen-man game.

A fan favourite at Ospreys in the Pro12, he made the RaboDirect Dream Team in his first season at the club and despite missing a significant chunk of last (2014/15) season, Hassler still managed to record 6 tries in 11 appearances for the Welsh club this year. Such try-scoring form will be sorely needed by Canada if they hope to make any noise at this year’s World Cup and avoid another last-place finish.  

Sonatane Takulua – Tonga & Newcastle Falcons

A mid-season acquisition earlier this year for the Aviva Premiership’s Newcastle Falcons having impressed for Northland in the ITM Cup, Sonatane Takulua will have North-Eastern rugby fans eagerly anticipating Tongan games at this year’s World Cup in order to catch a glimpse of the elusive No.9 who sparkled at this year’s Pacific Nations Cup.

Takulua finished tied with the previously mentioned Leone Nakarawa and Fetu’u Vainikolo as top-try scorer in this year’s tournament with four, including a brace of tries in a man-of-the-match performance against Canada.

As you’d come to expect from a scrum-half, Takulua is at his peak at the base of a ruck or scrum. Takulua’s excellent decision-making is his best asset, allowing the 23 year-old to consistently identify the most opportune time to get away a pass or make a break with ball-in-hand and then act upon it. It is this astute attacking awareness that makes him such a deadly attacker around the fringes and such a tough player to stop from sneaking across over the line from short-range as was on display in this year’s PNC where Takulua played a starring role in Tonga’s 31-20 victory over Japan to secure a third-place finish.Takulua is also an excellent support runner, able to glean even more attacking opportunities from being able to break away onto the shoulder of a team-mate in a flash.

Whether he gets the starting nod over the more experienced Taniela Moa at scrum-half in Pool C this autumn is Head coach’s Mana Otai’s decision alone, but Takulua will have done his chances no harm with an outstanding tournament over the summer in Canada, and his opportunistic playing style may actually benefit more from being let loose upon tired defenders off the bench for Ikale Tahi.


2015 Rugby World Cup - Points Table