Fiji and Tonga may not be among the front runners at this year's, or indeed at any Rugby World Cup. However as two thirds of the Pacific Islanders they represent a significant part of rugby's global heritage, and certainly two of the most potentially exciting and neutrals' favourites at the tournament.
World Cup History
Of the two sides, Fiji has the stronger record in previous tournaments. Having progressed to the quarter finals in 1987's inaugural competition, they were beaten in the 1999 quarter final playoff with England, and were within minutes of defeating Scotland in 2003, which would have again seen them to progress again to the knockout stages. In 2007 we were treated to one of the great games of rugby union, as the south sea islanders stunned Wales in the group stage, progressing to a quarter final with eventual winners South Africa at Welsh expense, much to the delight of England fans in particular. Ultimately South Africa were comfortable winners, but not before Fiji had given them a fright for 60 minutes of high-intensity rugby.
Tonga on the other hand has a less illustrious record than their Pacific neighbours. Having never progressed beyond the group stage, 2007 was their most successful tournament to date, with victories recorded against the USA and rivals Samoa, whilst they also ran England and South Africa close, suffering a narrow 30-25 defeat against the champions. Hitherto, their only noteworthy result was a 28-25 victory over Italy in the 1999 competition, bookended by heavy defeats to the All Blacks and England.
Run-up to 2011
Both sides have had bureaucratic issues to resolve off the pitch in the run up to the competition. Tonga's were certainly less traumatic, although they had to cope with the departure of Rugby Union chairman Bob Tuckey, reportedly under pressure from within the Tongan government. Fiji's preparations on the other hand were threatened with severe disruptions thanks to the New Zealand government's ban on any persons with connections to the Fijian non-democratic military government from entering the country. Whilst this is still set to affect a number of FRFU officials, the only player who would have been affected was lock Leone Nakawara, who has now resigned from his post as a junior officer in the Fijian army.
In terms of warm up matches, the two sides recently played each other twice in Lautoka, with honours being shared evenly. Fiji took the first match 27-12, with an assured and powerful performance to avenge a heavy defeat in the teams' previous Pacific Cup meeting. However in the second leg it was Tonga who dominated, with a strengthened pack helping them to a 32-20 victory.
Both sides have also been affected by financial issues off the pitch. Fiji are reportedly still without a sponsorship deal for the tournament, and instead rely on a subsidiary from the government and donations from private supporters. Tonga's Soane Tonga'huia meanwhile, recently tweeted his dissatisfaction with having to fund his own flights. Following the last World Cup, much has already been written about the IRB's failure to sufficiently fund emerging nations, and these events will do little to abate criticism of the game's governing body.
Tonga's game against France offers the best chance of an upset; whilst the likelihood of this is minimal, there is the hope amongst only the most fervent Tonga supporters that it is Bad France that turns up, and that they can create the greatest of shocks. Fiji meanwhile are in the toughest group, and should they manage to overcome neighbours Samoa will be hoping to continue their recent run of good results against a Wales team that will be having nightmares of four years ago.
Player to watch
For Fiji the undoubted star is Gloucester's openside flanker Akapusi Quera. His outstanding combination of speed, power and deftness of hand has helped him stand out in a Premiership full of excellent athletic back rows. Qera also boasts an impressive strike rate, having scored the opening try against Wales in 2007, and having two hat-tricks to his name for Gloucester.
Tonga perhaps have more potential stars in their line-up, with captain Finau Maka a veteran of Toulouse and full-back Viliame Ionge one of the game's rising stars. Nonetheless, Northampton prop Soane Tonga'huia is arguably the best in the world today, and spent the majority of the 2010-11 season in tandem with Brian Mujati destroying opposition scrums and putting such much-vaunted packs as Leinster and Perpignan on their backsides. Meanwhile he proved a devastating force in the loose also, scoring a number of tries and making headway at first receiver to create space for the likes of Chris Ashton.
Tonga have almost no chance of bettering their previous best performances and making the quarter finals for the first time. They are in a tough group with France and the All Blacks, and it is a shame that their talented side don't the opportunity to go up against some weaker second-tier nations such as Wales, Argentina or Scotland for the chance to qualify. Instead they can only realistically hope to emulate their two wins from four years ago.
Fiji will also find it hard to qualify, having slipped out of the top ten of the IRB rankings and been shorn of world-class players such as Leinster's Isa Nacewa. Nonetheless, they are fully capable of beating Wales, and should they again do so then the result of their match with Samoa will be key. Ultimately however, their Pacific Island neighbours may prove too strong, and so regardless of the result against Wales I would back Samoa to emerge from the group ahead of Fiji.