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Fiji v Papua New Guinea
Pirtek Stadium
Saturday, 5.35pm

By: Tony Webeck

When Papua New Guinea went through the group stage of the 2000 World Cup undefeated (including wins over France and Tonga), it appeared rugby league’s most passionate nation was on the verge of international significance.

Since then they have failed to win a game in the past two World Cups and have lost their past seven Test matches but as they prepare to host World Cup matches for the first time in PNG in 2017 there is hope on the horizon.

The introduction of the PNG Hunters to Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup has exposed a greater number of players to regular competition at a high level and showcased them to NRL and Super League clubs who have come calling.

Now contracted to the Canberra Raiders, Kato Ottio is believed to be close to an NRL start after some strong displays in the Intrust Super NSW Premiership and Rod Griffin has graduated from the Ipswich Jets to a full-time contract with the Wests Tigers.

The return of David Mead to the Kumuls colours gives the team a major boost with Nene Macdonald, Luke Page and Kurt Baptiste also boast NRL experience.

Semi-finalists at the 2013 World Cup, Fiji go into this game without Korbin Sims and Jayson Bukuya due to suspension and Marika Koroibete, Viliame Kikau and Apisai Koroisau due to injury and will rely heavily on the experience of Kevin Naiqama, Akuila Uate and Sisa Waqa out wide and young forwards Kane Evans, Daniel Saifiti and Eloni Vunakece.

Both teams are guaranteed passage into next year’s World Cup but with few opportunities to play Test matches need to start building now.

Fiji are currently ranked seventh in the world and the Kumuls 14th (behind Serbia, Italy and Canada) but this represents a chance for PNG to show there is now little between them.

Watch out Bati: The threat posed by David Mead at fullback is obvious to anyone who has watched the Titans play this season but one player who Fiji need to be particularly wary of is crafty hooker Wartovo Puara. A member of the PNG Hunters team that qualified for the Intrust Super Cup semi-finals in their second season last year, Puara is small in stature but big in footy smarts and is capable of causing havoc around the ruck with his speed off the mark. If the big Fiji forwards start to slow up, he’s the man that can take advantage.

Watch out Kumuls: It’s been three years since Sisa Waqa last represented Fiji at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and with his move to French rugby now less than two months away he’ll be keen to go out with a bang. An enigmatic player with 95 NRL games to his name, Waqa has been forced to bide his time in NSW Cup with the Raiders this season but will no doubt have something special planned in what will likely be his final game for the Bati. He’s never scored a try in four Tests with Fiji; I’m tipping that to change on Saturday night.

Key match-up: Kane Evans v Luke Page. The loss of Korbin Sims through suspension puts further pressure on Roosters prop Kane Evans to lead the way up front and while he will tower over the PNG pack he faces a willing combatant in Luke Page. Having spent time with both Canberra and St George Illawarra in the past two seasons, Page is a ferocious runner of the footy who will push off the back fence at Pirtek Stadium before charging into the Fijian defence. When these two big boppers collide it will rock the foundations and inspire their teammates around them.

History: Last year’s Pacific Test represented the first meeting between these two island nations with Fiji running out 22-10 victors over a Papua New Guinea team boasting only two players with NRL experience at the time. While Fiji have steadily climbed the international rugby league ranks the Kumuls have gone the other way, losing all seven of their most recent Test matches.

Match officials: Referee: Robert Hicks; Touch Judges: Russell Turner and Tim Roby; Review Officials: Bryan Norrie and Jason Robinson; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

The way we see it: The key outs of Sims and Bukuya level up the NRL experience within the two sides considerably and bring PNG right into the contest. More Kumuls players than ever before are training and playing at a high level and with David Mead at fullback have a class player in a key position. Fiji’s greatest advantage comes up front where they have a host of towering props who will challenge the PNG defence but the Kumuls are used to playing well above their weight. The combination of brothers Ase and Watson Boas in the halves might just be enough for PNG to cause the upset. Kumuls by six points.