WELLINGTON, July 26 (Reuters) - Tonga’s Nasi Manu will make an emotional return to the international rugby field in the Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) opener against Samoa on Saturday after being cleared of testicular cancer.
The annual test tournament, which this year welcomes guest teams the United States, Canada and Japan, will be a crucial part of the World Cup preparations for Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Manu has had much bigger things on his mind since he was diagnosed with cancer last year while playing for Italian club Treviso but a welcome medical update has finally left him free to focus on his rugby.
“I was given the good news on June 16 that I was in full remission,” the told TVNZ. “The support I received, I couldn’t believe it.”
With regular captain Siale Piutau unavailable, Tonga coach Toutai Kefu has turned to the former Otago Highlanders number eight to captain the side in Apia for the first of their three tournament fixtures.
The New Zealand born and raised loose forward has played just three tests for Tonga but makes up part of a big pack along with former Wellington Hurricanes lock Sam Lousi and Racing 92 prop Ben Tameifuna.
Tonga have played just 16 tests since the last World Cup four years ago and their matches against Samoa, Japan and Canada will be vital as they look to put together their combinations for rugby’s showpiece tournament.
Samoa have had another coaching clearout after beating Germany in a two-legged playoff last year to qualify for the World Cup, with former Maori All Blacks player Steve Jackson now heading the twice World Cup quarter-finalists.
Jackson named an extended and inexperienced 38-man squad for the PNC, including uncapped prop Alofaaga Sao, who impressed in the domestic competition and has already been touted as the future of the team.
While the Pacific neighbours begin the tournament in Apia, much of the focus will be on Kamaishi later on Saturday where Fiji begin their quest for a fifth successive PNC title against the World Cup hosts.
Jamie Joseph’s Brave Blossoms squad have been in cotton wool for the best part of a year preparing for the World Cup and their clash with John McKee’s team should show how both are tracking.
Both have proved on more than one occasion they can compete with top tier nations and Fiji are on a high after they beat the Maori All Blacks for the first time since 1957 in Suva two weeks ago.
With teams only playing three matches, the clash at Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium could turn out to be the title decider even if the tournament runs until Aug. 10.
The U.S. and Canada, who meet in Denver, have both concentrated on the America’s Championship since they last played in the PNC ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
The advent of Major League Rugby has boosted the number of professionals in North America and both sides will be keen to leave Colorado for Fiji with a win under their belts.
Former Springboks assistant coach Gary Gold has cast the net wide for the U.S. Eagles, naming rugby sevens players Madison Hughes and Martin Iosefo along with former NFL player Paul Lasike in his squad.
New Zealand-born Lasike switched back to rugby last year and joined English club Harlequins. (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)