Wales wary as Islanders offer giant challenge

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The Independent Online

As they trample out on to the Cardiff turf today, the Pacific Islanders will be making history as they play their first international in the northern hemisphere. They will then attempt to trample all over Wales as they go hunting for a double burst of first-evers.

That they might achieve their maiden victory as an entity is not an eventuality that should be dismissed too readily. Even Gareth Jenkins, the Welsh coach, admitted: "We have to be wary. This is a big challenge." Jenkins unashamedly put the emphasis on "big".

For he knows, just as all the rugby world has long known, that the "British Lions of the South Seas" - the blessed conglomeration of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga - will lack as much in physicality as they will in talent. Jenkins yesterday referred to their surfeit of the latter as "truly incredulous" (well, you know what he meant) and generously backed his opponents' case to be granted their rightful international status.

"This tour is definitely the way forward," he said, nodding to their subsequent Tests against Scotland and Ireland. "But the Islanders should not just be embarking on foreign trips. They should also be accepted into the Tri-Nations. Their rugby riches demand it."

Their "rugby riches" may do, alas their "financial riches" do not, and today should highlight the huge disadvantage they are operating under. By kick-off, of what will be just their fourth game ever, Pat Lam, their coach, will have had his squad together for the grand total of five days and in that time will have had to gel not only three different cultures but 15 players who only usually catch up with each other on opposing teams.

His team may be riddled with star names from the Guinness Premiership and Super 14 - and might, for that matter, be wanting for nothing in terms of match fitness because of it - but their organisation must be a concern. "Yes, Wales do have an advantage as the majority of their players play in the same country and we've had limited preparation time," said Lam. "But we have great faith in this team's ability to be highly competitive in all facets of play. The boys just love running with the ball. And they just love their big hits."

With the scars of two home losses to Samoa in the last 15 years, the Welsh should not need any reminding of it and if they do, Tom Shanklin, their absent centre, yesterday issued a simple piece of advice of what to do when the tackles come flying - "duck!"

Perhaps, with this in mind, Jenkins has selected what he considers to be a highly combative pack along with a few real bruisers at half-back in Michael Phillips and Ceri Sweeney.

Outside them, James Hook might be called on to bring something more brutish than the consummate composure of last Saturday's draw with Australia as out wide the Islanders have some genuinely scary exponents of pace and flair. The names Lome Fa'atau, Sailosi Tagicakibau and Seru Rabeni may just trip off the tongue come tea-time in Cardiff.

Wales: K Morgan (Newport Gwent Dragons); L Byrne (Ospreys), S Parker (Ospreys), J Hook (Ospreys), M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets); C Sweeney (Newport Gwent Dragons), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); D Jones (Ospreys, capt), R Thomas (Cardiff Blues), C Horsman (Worcester), M Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons), R Sidoli (Cardiff Blues), A W Jones (Ospreys), G Thomas (Llanelli Scarlets), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets). Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), G Cooper (Newport Gwent Dragons), G Evans (Llanelli Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys).

Pacific Islands: N Ligairi (Brive and Fiji); L Fa'atau (Wellington and Samoa), S Rabeni (Leicester and Fiji), S Mapusua (London Irish and Samoa), S Tagicakibau (London Irish and Samoa); T Pisi (Massey and Samoa), M Rauluni (Saracens and Fiji); J Va'a (Glasgow and Samoa), M Schwalger (Wellington and Samoa), T Taumoepeau (Worcester and Tonga), S Raiwalui (Saracens and Fiji, capt), D Leo (Wasps and Samoa), S Sititi (NTT Docomo Kansai and Samoa), N Latu (Bay of Plenty and Tonga), H T-Pole (Southland and Tonga). Replacements: A Lutui (Worcester and Tonga), C Johnson (Taranaki and Samoa), M Molitika (IBM and Tonga), E Taione (Sanyo and Tonga), J Poluleuligaga (North Harbour and Samoa), S Bai (Clermont and Fiji), K Ratuvou (Saracens and Fiji).

Referee: W Barnes (Eng).