Fiji and Tonga have named their warriors for their opening 2023 Pacific Nations Cup series clash at Churchill Park, Lautoka on Saturday.

The Flying Fijians have named four new caps – three debutants in the starting 15 and one on the bench, while the ‘Ikale Tahi have stuck with a tested team, naming only one new cap in the reserves.

Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city, will be the battleground and with the weather forecast to be hot and sunny fans are in for a feast of physical confrontations upfront and a test of agility and speed along the backline.

Both head coaches, Simon Raiwalui for the home team and Toutai Kefu for the visitors, understand what is at stake and expect a tough 80 minutes.

Fiji Rugby Union expects over 15,000 fans in attendance and by Thursday afternoon the main grandstand tickets – about 7000 – were already sold out.

Flying Fijians brimming with confidence

Raiwalui named Fijian Drua trio Caleb Muntz, Selestino Ravutaumada and Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta in his matchday 23, who, along with Lekima Tagitagivalu, are getting their first national team call up.

Cirikidaveta is expected to come off the bench to cover for the loosies or the locks.

Raiwalui said the team was a strong one but selecting the matchday squad was not easy.

“The team has trained extremely well. The squad has had excellent preparation. Obviously it was a very hard selection,” he said at Churchill Park after the team run on Thursday afternoon.

He said the debutants deserved to be in the starting line-up.

“Really exciting to have new players coming into the team and obviously a great honour to have the debutants coming to play for Fiji for the first time.”

Tough France-based centre Waisea Nayacalevu, who has 36 caps in the white jersey, has been retained as captain, edging out Levani Botia and Semi Radradra, who had also shared captaincy of the Flying Fijians in the last two years.

Raiwalui said his captain was an obvious choice with his experience and leadership qualities.

“He has really grown and it’s an easy selection. He carries himself very well with integrity.”

Nayacalevu said he was honoured to lead the team.

“I am so grateful to Simon and the management team to give me the opportunity to lead the boys again,” he said.

“It’s an honour for me, especially with the young boys being involved. It’s a good mix with the [Fijian] Drua and experienced boys. Can’t wait to play on Saturday.”

Raiwalui has named a powerful front-row which has Reds Super Rugby rep Peni Ravai pairing with Drua prop Mesake Doge, while tough hooker Sam Matavesi will hold the scrum.

Blistering winger Josua Tuisova, known in France as ‘The Bus’ has been shifted to inside centre to pair Nayacalevu.

Folau rested

The ‘Ikale Tahi have rested former Wallaby Israel Folau and former New Zealand player Pita Ahki, who were prominent in the Tongans’ win over Australia A in Nuku’alofa last Friday.

Kefu told RNZ Pacific he wanted to see what players could contribute to the team before naming his final squad for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

“The focus is on the World Cup and all we do is geared towards that,” he said.

Kefu has named Patrick Pellegrini in the reserves and the player is expected to make his debut off the bench.

He retained three former All Blacks in his starting line-up.

Fullback Charles Piutau, inside centre Malakai Fekitoa and number eight Vaea Fifita are expected to play key roles in the battle against Fiji.

Piutau has labelled the Flying Fijians run on side as a dangerous team heading into tomorrow’s Pacific Nations Cup opener.

Piutau who is gearing to play his first Rugby World Cup for his home nation, said he is well versed about the depth in their Pacific neighbours armoury and coming off a good 27-21 win over Australia A, should put the Tongans in a good position.

“From the forward pack to the fullback, it is a dangerous team, and we definitely got our hands full.”

The former All Blacks centre said knowing when the Pacific meets, it was always a war.

“With the Pacific brothers, it’s always a physical battle, there’s definitely a challenge ahead.”

Piutau is expected to attack Fiji from depth being named at fullback for the Ikale Tahi.

They were impressive for the ‘Ikale Tahi at home against Australia A.

Moana Pasifika captain Solomone Funaki, who had a great outing at home last week, heavyweight prop Ben Tameifuna, skipper Sonatane Takulua, and former Mate Ma’a Tonga and Auckland Warriors rep Solomone Kata will add to the experience for the side.

The Tongans flew into Nadi on Thursday evening.

High expectations from coaches

Both Raiwalui and Kefu believe the game will be a difficult test.

“It’s a match between Fiji and Tonga, it’s always a physical match and we understand we are playing against a very good team and we look forward to the challenge” Raiwalui said.

Kefu said Fiji will be tough at home and believes his men will need to be switched on from the kick-off.

“It’s going to be tough and physical. Fiji will be on fire and we just have to turn up and do what we have been practising,” the former Wallaby said.

“We have named a team we believe can do the job.”

Fans supporting both teams from Suva and the western division are expected to pack Churchill Park and cheer their teams on.

The teams: Fiji: Peni Ravai, Sam Matavesi, Mesake Doge, Isoa Nasilasila, Temo Mayanavanua, Lekima Tagitagivalu, Levani Botia, Albert Tuisue, Frank Lomani, Caleb Muntz, Selesitino Ravutaumada, Josua Tuisova, Waisea Nayacalevu (captain), Jiuta Wainiqolo, Sireli Maqala; Reserves – Tevita Ikanivere, Eroni Mawi, Luke Tagi, Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta, Vilimate Mata, Peni Matawalu, Ben Volavola, Semi Radradra

Tonga: Siegfrtied Fisi’ihoi, Siua Maile, Ben Tameifuna, Halaleva Fifita, Samiuela Lousi, Tanginoa Halaifonua, Solomone Funaki, Vaea Fifita, Sonatane Takulua (captain), Otumaka Mausia, Solomone Kata, Malakai Fekitoa, Afusipa Taumoepeau, Fine Inisi, Salesi Piutau; Reserves – Samiuela Moli, Feao Fotuaika, Tau Koloamatangi, Sione Vailanu, Manu Paea, Patrick Pellegrini, Kyren Taumoefolau.